After missing four races with a L1 compression fracture, Denny Hamlin knew his path to making the NASCAR Chase for the Championship was going to be a challenge.
But a runner-up finish at Darlington in his first full race back followed by a fourth-place finish at Charlotte changed that perception. In just two races Hamlin moved within reasonable grasp of being inside the top 20 in points where he would be eligible to claim one of two wildcard spots available to 14th winningest drivers between 11th and 20th in points.
That perception changed, however, last week at Dover when a blown tire sent Hamlin crashing hard into the wall. The resulting 34th-place finish dropped him to 26th overall and more worrisome, he now trails 20th-place Ryan Newman by 74 points.
"This point system is tough," Hamlin said during a press conference on Friday at Pocono Raceway. "It really is. We're in a hole.
"We were edging our way. We were going to be in good shape had we not blown that tire we would have been down in the 40s (point deficit) to 20th with plenty of time. Now we set ourselves back to where we pretty much started again. We've done the math, we know what we have to do, but obviously we know that every bad finish it hurts us that much more."
The reality is he will need multiple wins if he plans on getting into the Chase.
"I'm going to need to get two wins," he said. "If I get one, then it will put me in the mix, but then I'd have to leap frog those guys on points and with the bad finish that I had last week, it's going to be pretty hard to do. I'm going to have to rely on I think two wins and then barely getting in the top-20 at the end."
Another concern facing Hamlin is the repeated engine failures that have inflicted Joe Gibbs Racing, which has its motors manufactured and installed by Toyota Racing Development. On the year TRD built engines have failed six times including two notable failures in the Daytona 500.
But the lack of reliability seemed to be resolved. That was until Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. all suffered blown motors at Charlotte and Dover. This rash of engine failures was heightened with upcoming races at Pocono and Michigan -- two tracks where engines run high rpms for extended periods of time.
TRD has responded by decreasing the amount of horsepower its engines will produce in the next two weeks. The hope is because the motors are less taxed it will be able to complete the full race-distance while at the same time not compromising performance.
"I feel like in the offseason, (Toyota) obviously took a great step forward in power," Hamlin said. "Now we have to dial it back some and see what the payoff is from power to reliability because ultimately with this points system you have to finish these races."