As he returns to one of his favorite tracks, Denny Hamlin finds himself in an uncustomary position this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
For the first time in his career, Hamlin is not a participant in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Nor has he won a race, as he had every year since his rookie season.
Instead, his season has been derailed by injury, repeated mechanical failures and just general underperformance.
With four races left in what he aptly refers to as a "frustrating season," Hamlin sits 24th overall. His rank in the point standings is almost to be expected when you consider he missed four races in the spring with a back injury.
However, what wasn't expected was for him to struggle as bad as he has since returning to full-time competition in May. Yet in the 22 races since, Hamlin has posted just four top-10 finishes and endured a career-worst 16-race stretch where he finished no better than 12th.
As it became apparent that he wasn't going to make a miraculous run to another Chase berth, Hamlin settled into a role at Joe Gibbs Racing: guinea pig. With teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch in the thick of the championship battle, Hamlin's No. 11 team is a de facto R&D team for JGR, testing engines and chassis setups that later might prove beneficial to Kenseth and Busch.
And through it all Hamlin has turned his attention to next year, using the rest of this season to build a foundation for 2014 when he expects to return to his usual form.
"It's tough because what my fans see is they see the struggles, they see the blown engines and things like that we've had here recently," Hamlin said Friday. "But those are all things that we signed up for when we didn't make the Chase. We decided it would be best for us to work on next year and focus on next year.
"We have really shifted our focus to coming up with an engine that works good for next year, a chassis setup that's going to work good and along with it, we'd like to get a little momentum with it. ... And obviously, if we could get a win this weekend by no means will it fix or make us feel good about our year, but it will definitely give us something to smile about in the off-season."
Hamlin's effort to secure his first victory of the year was greatly enhanced when he sped to the pole in qualifying Friday. His lap of 99.595 mph broke the previous track record held by Jimmie Johnson, and gave him the choice of the No. 1 pit stall -- a difference maker on what is a very narrow pit road at NASCAR's smallest venue.
Just as Hamlin flashed his previous form Friday, he also found his missing swagger.
As he wrapped up his press conference with reporters after capturing his fifth pole of the season, Hamlin told reporters, "See you Sunday" referring to the winner's post-race presser.
"For the competition or anyone to think (the No. 11 team) is going to be a favorite going into a track where we've struggled to run top 10 lately would be farfetched," Hamlin said. "However, I'm pretty sure and pretty confident that we're going to be a pretty larger force on Sunday."
If and when Hamlin returns to the winner's circle, his trials and tribulations this season have given him a new perspective.
"When you lose that edge of being at the top of your sport it's making you fight that much harder to get back to the top," Hamlin said. "And so for us, I think that the moment in which we become our old race team that we've been for the last seven-and-a-half years and we start winning races again it's just going to make me appreciate it that much more. Because not only having to sit out, but also having a half a year of struggling to be competitive.
"It will be overwhelming, once we win."