Scan the top of the NASCAR standings, and Denny Hamlin is there, same as always.
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has his No. 11 Toyota a relatively comfortable sixth in the points race, in good position to make the Chase for the championship with six races to go.
So, everything’s great heading into Sunday’s race at Pocono, right?
“On paper it looks good that we’re sixth,” Hamlin said. “I’m not comfortable with where we’re at.”
How could he be?
The 28-year-old began the year saying “it’s time to be a champion, not a guy that contends.”
Yet with the season more than halfway gone, Hamlin is still searching for his first trip to Victory Lane and is in the middle of the longest winless drought of his career: 50 races and counting.
While most drivers would hardly quibble with his season or a resume that includes a berth in the Chase in each of the last three years, Hamlin has grown tired of watching his dreams of a championship consistently fade in the fall.
This year was supposed to be different, but the ban on offseason testing combined with the remarkable strength of Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing has left Hamlin and JGR teammate Kyle Busch among the drivers scrambling to play catch-up with the likes of superstars Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
“Week in, week out it’s a Hendrick car winning one way, shape or form,” Hamlin said. “Pretty much they’re taking all the top five spots, to be honest with you. We feel like we’ve got a tall mountain to climb.”
The ascent didn’t get off to a good start at Indianapolis.
Busch stumbled to 38th after his right front tire blew, and a broken drive shaft early in the race sent Hamlin to the garage for 16 laps. He finished 34th, the third time in the last eight races he’s found himself in the bottom 10.
Afterward JGR president J.D. Gibbs admitted “we might not have the best stuff right now.”
Hamlin estimated JGR is the team best equipped to close the gap, but feels Hendrick and Stewart-Haas have a distinct advantage because of their technical alliance.
“Ultimately, they’re getting better feedback,” Hamlin said. “... We hear on the radio when (Stewart) struggles or (Ryan Newman) struggles, they just say over the radio, ’Hey, go get the notes from (Mark Martin’s car) and find out what he’s running.’ That’s big.”
Don’t get Hamlin wrong. He’s not whining. He believes there’s enough time left for JGR to make inroads, but the margin for error is small.
While Busch has three wins this season for JGR, his inability to consistently salvage something out of “bad” races has left him 14th in the standings, 82 points out of the Chase heading into this weekend’s visit to Pocono.