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Hamlin's charge needs to start now

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By Ngozi Ekeledo

LONG POND, Pa. ( Terry Blount / ESPN.com ) -- Denny can do this. Just wait and see.

Make that his mantra for the summer. Denny Hamlin is NASCAR's new favorite underdog. He didn't start the season that way. He was just a plain old favorite, as in one of the drivers favored to win the Sprint Cup championship.

A bad wreck, a broken back and four missed races changed all that for Hamlin. Now he's the guy trying to chip in a couple of shots from the bunker, hit a grand slam to tie the score or make that 30-foot jumper to force overtime.

Denny can do this. He can fight his way into a Chase spot with a historic summer comeback run. Either way, you want to watch and find out.

Heck, everyone loves a long shot. It's one of the best things about sports. The chance to see someone do something that defies logic and overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

That's Hamlin's quest, and it's daunting. Consider the difficulty of the task:

• He's 26th in the standings, six spots outside where he needs to be to even have a chance at making the playoff.

• He's 74 points outside of that 20th-place spot, about a race and a half of points that he needs to make up in 13 events.

• He's winless, so even if he gets to the top 20, he has to win (probably more than once) to have a shot of one of the two wild-card spots for the Chase.

• Toyota, his team's manufacturer, is admittedly dialing back the power now to increase engine reliability. Great for helping teams finish the race, not so great for helping Hamlin win.

• Tony Stewart, one of the drivers Hamlin probably needs to beat for a Chase spot, took a big leap ahead of him last weekend with his victory at Dover.

• Hamlin is still playing hurt. Hamlin says his back fracture has healed, but he had back problems before the crash.

Obviously, this is no yellow brick road. But Denny can do this.

And it starts Sunday at Pocono, one of his best tracks. Hamlin has four victories on the 2.5-mile triangle and five other finishes in the top six. But Hamlin said last year's repave at Pocono took away some of his advantage.

"What you need to do to go fast around here is the exact same, but it's a completely different racetrack," he said. "Anytime they put new pavement down, everything changes. It's a whole new ballgame. The setups are no longer the same. You pretty much learn all over again."

He needs to learn quickly. Friday's rainout that canceled one practice and qualifying didn't help him. Hamlin will start 17th, which doesn't sound so bad, but the past seven winners here in the June race started on the front row.

"We still feel we can run really well here," Hamlin said. "I'm optimistic. With how we've been running, we can win pretty much any given week."

But he won't have as much horsepower as he had a week ago. Toyota has produced the fastest cars all season, but continuing engine failures forced Toyota engineers to make some changes and ease up a little.

"Obviously, it's disappointing from the driver's standpoint," Hamlin said. "We feel like things were really going well for 10 weeks or so, and then we had a couple episodes. I think TRD [Toyota Racing Development] has identified the issues.

"They brought us all together and talked about our short- and long-term plan to fix it. They took a great step forward in power this year, but now have to dial it back some and see what the payoff is to reliability. In this points system, you have to finish these races."

After missing 4½ races [Hamlin started at Talladega, then got out and let Brian Vickers finish the race], Hamlin has raced well since his return. He finished second at Darlington and fourth at Charlotte.

He was running near the front at Dover before a tire went down and he slammed the wall late in the race, finishing 34th. Now he's back to where he started when he returned from the back injury.

"We should be coming in here with three consecutive top-5s," Hamlin said. "But circumstances took us out last week. Now we have to work that much harder if we want to achieve that Chase spot."

It starts with making up points. Only drivers ranked in the top 20 are eligible for a Chase wild-card spot. Hamlin has to pass five drivers. The top 10 in the standings make the Chase on points, but the two wild cards get in based on wins and on having a spot between 11th and 20th in the standings.

"This points system is tough," Hamlin said. "We're in a hole. Now I have to average two spots better in each race just because I had one bad finish. That's a crusher. There isn't enough of a bonus for running in the top 5. But it gives us a chance, based on wild cards."

Hamlin has done the math, but forget all the arithmetic. It's going to come down to winning.

"I'm going to need two wins," Hamlin said. "If I get one, it will put me in the mix, but then I'd have to leapfrog those guys [other one-win drivers] on points."

One victory and consistent finishes might get Hamlin back to the top 20, but other drivers with one win, such as Stewart now, likely will rank ahead of him and earn the wild-card spots unless Hamlin wins twice.

"Last week was a double blow with Tony winning," Hamlin said. "I'm happy for him, but either way, him or Juan Pablo [Montoya, who finished second]; it was not looking good for me. And the 78 [Kurt Busch] is going to win at some point.

"So it's going to be pretty hard to do. I'm going to need two wins to barely get in the top 20 at the end."

Nevertheless, Denny can do this. Jeff Gordon believes it. Gordon is inside the Chase for now with the final spot, ranking 11th without a victory when the only other driver with a win behind him in the top 20 is Stewart. But he knows Hamlin could be a threat to his playoff hopes.

"With Denny, you can't count them out," Gordon said. "Denny's running good. He can strike and win at any time. Pocono comes to mind as a strong track for him.

"If he gets inside the top 20, chances are he's probably going to be a wild card because, to get in the top 20, he's going to have to win. You never stop working in this sport because anything can happen."

Last year, Hamlin won back to back at Bristol and Atlanta before the Chase started. The Sprint Cup Series races at 12 different tracks over the next 13 weeks before the Chase starts. Hamlin has won at six of them, accounting for 12 of his 22 career victories.

Hamlin believes he needs at least one victory in the next six races to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. He has a total of eight wins at three of those tracks, two at Michigan, two at New Hampshire plus the four at Pocono.

"We've got some really good ones down the stretch," Hamlin said. "But I don't want to wait and have three races to go and need to win two. That's pressure, for sure. We don't want to wait that long."

One thing Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have waited to do is use test sessions. All four still are available. Hamlin will use one at Atlanta.

"We need to use them wisely," Hamlin said. "We're trying to talk our teammates into going where they've already tire tested [which doesn't count as a team test], because we know we need to get wins at those racetracks. But they have bigger goals because they already have their wins."

Matt Kenseth has three victories and Kyle Busch has two, so the other two JGR drivers have no worries on making the Chase. The fact that JGR has five victories this season also shows Hamlin isn't out of it.

"We've got a huge task," Hamlin said. "But you just can't miss races and expect to be where you want to be in points. You reassess your goals to get where you need to be."

This is a Mount Everest of assignments for Hamlin. Logic says it can't be done, but some of the great comebacks in sports history defied logic. This might be one of those times.

Yes, Denny can do this. Just wait and see.

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