Qualifying key to Hamlin’s chances this weekend in Martinsville

Denny Hamlin has been in the middle of his fairshare of controversy in this race at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. Between his 2017 run-in with Chase Elliott to the 2019 pit road spat with Joey Logano to last year’s incident with Alex Bowman, Hamlin isn’t shy of drama in the Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN). In a year that he feels like he’s been run over more times than he would like, is it time to inflict payback to maneuver his way into his record tying 5th career Championship 4?

Ross Chastain knows that Hamlin owes him at least one. So does William Byron. Both occupy 2 of the 3 spots ahead of Hamlin in points right now with at least one of these three not making it to Phoenix.

However, Hamlin can make it easier on himself this weekend by rolling off the truck fast. If he can do so and turn it into a great Saturday, then his Sunday could go without conflict and him getting his fourth straight final round appearance in easier fashion.

Hamlin warned two weeks ago that until they can get their qualifying pace figured out, then they’d likely struggle on Sunday’s. That was never more evident than last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – APRIL 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Hamlin had started on the pole for 6 of the last 7 races in Miami including 5 straight. He could only muster the 14th best speed on Saturday.

This week, he was 11th.

8 of Hamlin’s last 11 qualifying efforts have seen him start outside the top 10. He qualified 24th on the ROVAL, 31st in Vegas and now 14th last week and 11th this. If they want a chance, they have to qualify better.

”It’s up to me and the engineers and Chris Gabehart to figure out how we can come off the truck better (for qualifying),” Hamlin said a week ago. In qualifying, all of us were kind of off. It’s just something we have to work on. “Right now, I don’t believe we’re the heat by any means, but we’re executing well, and that’s something we didn’t do well early in the season. I love (Homestead) for sure. We unloaded best, but the field caught up to us (at the test). It’s a track I love racing at, the driver can make a difference with so many options. In the end, have to execute and not make any mistakes.”

That was prophetic. Ho-hum qualifying day and mistakes in the end of last Sunday’s race cost him points. 11 of them in fact. He entered the day +6 in points and leaves -5. Just 1 stage point compared to William Byron’s 17 (he started on the pole) has Hamlin facing elimination.

However, he just needs to qualify better and the rest could be history.

The next thing to fix is his short run speed too.

“We’re just too slow on the short runs,” he quipped last week. “Something we’ve really got to work on for sure. Vegas, it hurt us as well. We’ll just continue to work on it, and I’ll try to work on my technique and try to do anything I can to try to get some more speed out of it.”

Hamlin has struggled lately in Martinsville but after a strong test there recently, he feels like his old pace can come alive again next Sunday.

“We’ve got to go get stage points,” said the 5-time Martinsville winner. “We can’t be outside the top 10 for the first two stages for sure. That’s the only thing that has really kind of hurt us. Not having a lot of playoff points, we always have to dig ourselves out of a hole every time a round starts. We just have to go there and get it done and perform well. I think we can. We have to qualify well and execute.”

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