CONCORD, N.C. — Denny Hamlin had a blown engine for the first time in three years on Sunday and, at first glance, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
With 26 laps to go in the second-round opener of NASCAR’s playoffs, Hamlin was suddenly in the garage, out of the race and — in a normal situation — likely out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But in this case, Hamlin is just fine. Incredibly, Hamlin woke up on Monday morning ranked eighth in the standings, holding onto the final Chase spot by three points with two races to go.
When a driver finishes 30th in a Chase race, he’s typically either in a must-win situation or hoping for some major bad luck from the drivers ahead of him. But that thinking doesn’t take into account four other drivers having worse luck than Hamlin at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Each round of the new Chase seems to teach a lesson or shed more light on the best way to make it to the championship race, and this one is no exception. Drivers entered Round 2 saying it was now time to be less conservative and go all out for wins and top-five finishes, but it looks like avoiding mistakes and misfortune might be the key — just as it was in the first round.
Think about it: Martin Truex Jr. had a seemingly bad finish — at least for Chase Round 2 standards — with a 13th-place result. And yet Truex is a whopping 19 points inside the cutoff after just one event.
The only driver who was that comfortable after the Charlotte race in 2015 was Joey Logano — and he won.
This elimination-style Chase is ever-evolving and unpredictable because it creates three-race mini-seasons, and there isn’t enough data or evidence to prove the best way to get through the rounds. There’s no way to tell whether a bunch of drivers will have trouble — like they did Sunday — or whether the Chase drivers will all make it through cleanly.
Of course, that’s not to say the drivers who had bad results at Charlotte were taking too much of a risk. Kevin Harvick didn’t do anything wrong when he lost engine power. Logano had tire problems likely not of his team’s doing. Chase Elliott got spun on a restart when he hit the brakes to avoid a crash. And Hamlin blew up.
The only potential strategy situation gone awry was Austin Dillon, who took two tires to get track position and restart second. If crew chief Slugger Labbe had known a mere 20th-place finish would put him double-digit points safely inside the Chase, maybe he would have made a different decision.
But that’s part of the intrigue of this format; at the time, it looked like the right call. No one really knows what's coming on the next lap.
Drivers seemed to have solved Round 1 this year — racing conservatively and staying out of trouble was more than enough to get through — but the later rounds still have many unknowns.
Is the Chase the fairest way to decide a champion? No. But there’s no denying it creates more story lines for NASCAR to talk about each week.
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