NASCAR at Martinsville: Denny Hamlin says he must gain ground on Brad Keselowski

All Denny Hamlin has to do is look at the Sprint Cup Series standings to realize how important this weekend's NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway is to his title hopes.

With just four races left in the season, Hamlin finds himself trailing championship leader Brad Keselowski by 20 points and second-place Jimmie Johnson by 13. And while neither deficit is insurmountable, it does mean Hamlin can no longer afford to lose ground to the pair of drivers ahead of him in the standings.

"If we win, then it is going to be huge momentum," Hamlin said Friday at Martinsville. "It's going to give us obviously a large substantial chunk of the points that we are down we'll get back. If for some reason, we can lead the most laps and win the race, that's half of our deficit that we've got that we can knock out in one week. We can chip away from there.

"This place will build momentum or it will take. You just hope you are on the first side of that."

Hamlin's Chase so far has been a mixed bag of sorts, as he has continually had the speed throughout the playoffs but hasn't had the track position to go with that speed. And frequently that unfavorable track position has been a result of the No. 11 team suffering from poor fuel mileage.

"It's frustrating because you look at our finishes, and it just bounces between good and bad every single week," Hamlin said. "I was talking with Darian (Grubb, crew chief), and we've got to figure out a way to minimize that. We've got to figure out these fuel issues that keep bugging us every single week. Fuel mileage is what cost us going two laps down in the course of the race with those cautions last week. We've got to change our strategy."

What gives Hamlin confidence this weekend is that Martinsville represents a track where he has thrived ever since he burst onto the Cup scene in 2006. In that timeframe, the native Virginian has amassed four victories, nine top-fives and 12 top-10s and has done all this in just 14 starts.

"Ultimately, if we finish outside of the top five then there's something wrong," he said. "Something wrong with the car, something wrong with me; you come here and you expect to go up there and challenge for race wins."

All of which makes this the perfect race for Hamlin to narrow the gap – especially on Keselowski, who has never finished better than ninth and will line up Sunday from the 32nd position.

"There's no reason that we should lose points to the 2 this weekend," Hamlin said. "I don't anticipate it, I don't plan on it, but you need to widen that spread. We need to gain six to seven (points) and the way to do that is to win. If you don't win, then it's going to be very hard to gain the points that we need for the last three races."

Hamlin's mindset going forward is that his team needs to win to climb out of the hole they find themselves in –something that is doable when you factor in that the No. 11 team has been victorious on all four of the tracks left on the schedule.

"Right now, the biggest jump we can get is winning and getting those three extra points for winning – leading a lap and things like that," Hamlin said. "We can't afford really to even finish second and let those guys finish three, five, six – hat's just not a big enough chunk. We need to win races and we know it."

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