Before the Chase ever began – and before he'd even clinched a spot in the playoffs – Denny Hamlin was thinking about Dover.
Of the 10 Chase tracks, Dover International Speedway represents his weakest venue. Hamlin is a master of Martinsville and New Hampshire, can win at any 1.5-mile track, knows how to get around Phoenix and has as good a shot at anyone at Talladega.
But Dover? It's the kind of place that could decide whether or not Hamlin stays close to Jimmie Johnson in the point standings or lets the 48 team get away en route to a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Hamlin, understandably, is concerned. His average finish at Dover is 20.5 (only Daytona and Sonoma are worse for him) and he has finished in the top 15 just twice in the last 10 races here.
There are 42 other drivers at Dover and 11 other championship contenders in the field, but all eyes will be on Hamlin this weekend. Drivers and fans alike are anxious to see how Hamlin handles the challenge of his weakest track.
Clearly, Hamlin is a guy who thrives when he's confident. At New Hampshire, when he "called his shot" (but later backed off), Hamlin dominated the race because he just knew he'd win if everything went right. And he did.
"I expected to win, and I knew if we didn't screw ourselves up or get in a wreck, we were going to win," he said this week. "There was no question in my mind. I know what I've got there, I know what my car's got there, so to me, it shouldn't have even been close."
But Dover is a different story. Hamlin is lacking in confidence at the Monster Mile, a place where he's won in the Nationwide Series but had little success in Cup.
So he turned to well-known sports psychologist Bob Rotella this week – who Hamlin has worked with since losing the 2010 championship in the final race – for a little advice.
Hamlin read aloud a text message exchange between he and Rotella this week.
"I need some positive influence on this week coming up," Hamlin texted to the psychologist. "It's my worst track."
"Let your challenge for the week to be to fall in love with the track," Rotella responded. "From the moment you arrive, look for things to love about it and reasons to love it. All week, look for things great and special to happen to you.
"Embrace the challenge of having your best attitude you've ever had this week. Take pride in showing yourself how strong your mind is. Own your mind and own the racetrack that you race. Control your attitude and let your emotions own the world. Have fun."
Hamlin acknowledged a psychologist is "not going to make me run better or worse," but rather improve the way he deals with his approach to the weekend.
"I can pump myself and beat my chest all I want going into a racetrack, but when you haven't had success there, that means you don't know what feel you are looking for," he said. "... We know at worst we've going to be 18th, two laps down. That's where we usually are."
So why does Hamlin seem to struggle at Dover? The driver believes he doesn't have "a good feel in my ass for concrete." But since he won last month on the concrete half-mile at Bristol, Hamlin said there's some hope. Plus, he's spent so many hours watching video to prepare for Dover that "my eyes are crossed," he said Friday.
"I feel like I've been around here 1,000 laps already," he added.
Qualifying will be "very key," he said, and set the tone for the weekend. But by the time he qualifies on Saturday, Hamlin will have already hit the track – twice.
In Friday's first practice, he put together a lap which was the third-fastest time overall. The lap was run in qualifying trim – not the slower pace of the race setup – but it left him feeling positive about the weekend outlook.
"It's easy to be optimistic when your car is fast," he said. "So far, it's given me no indication to not like it."
More telling was Hamlin's attitude change about just keeping Johnson within sight. Instead of trying to give up as few points as possible, Hamlin said, he just might go out and finish better than the 48 car.
"If we get our car good, we can beat (Johnson) here," Hamlin said. "That's a realistic thing that can happen."