May 2, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
Now, as he comes upon his 300th career Cup start this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, Hamlin surely hopes for more restrictor-plate success that can get him back on track.
“We certainly had a strong [Daytona] SpeedWeeks, with wins in the Sprint Unlimited and our Duel race, and backed it up with a second-place finish in the (Daytona) 500,” he said in a team release going into the weekend.
“Hopefully we can be that competitive again this weekend and run up front. These restrictor-plate races come down to a lot of circumstances and luck, but the plan is to keep the FedEx Camry up front throughout the day, stay out of trouble, and be there at the end.”
Since Daytona, Hamlin’s only been able to collect one Top-10 finish, a sixth at Bristol in March. And of course, he had to sit out Fontana due to an eye injury.
Last weekend’s race at Richmond appeared as if it was going to end with a solid result, but a late-race bump from Kyle Busch spun him out and relegated him to a 22nd-place finish.
Hamlin will have to reverse a downward trend at ‘Dega this weekend, as he hasn’t earned a Top-10 finish on NASCAR’s biggest oval since the fall of 2011. Altogether, he has three Top-5s and five Top-10s in 16 career Cup starts there.
Like many drivers, Hamlin has been pondering what tomorrow’s Sprint Cup qualifying session will bring for him. It marks the first time that NASCAR’s new knockout-style qualifying format will be used on a plate track.
“It’s going to be more of an exhibition than anything,” he said recently to USA Today and NBCSN contributor Nate Ryan. “Trust me, you’re not going to sleep uneasy the night before the race because you’re starting 25th. That can change within Lap 1.
“I think it’s more going to be a show for the fans. I think you’ll see a lot of pack drafting with teammates and manufacturers. As far as importance for the race, there’s really none.”
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