Denny Hamlin says he feels in control of his chances of making this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as he provisionally holds the final wild card entry heading into the deciding race.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver enters Saturday night's event at Richmond with a win to his name and 12th in the points standings, 11 points ahead of his closest rival, Richard Petty's AJ Allmendinger – who does not have a victory this year and thus is not eligible for a wild card.
Behind Allmendinger, Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer is only one point further behind in 14th, but he is also still looking for a win.
Hamlin claims he does not feel under pressure given the points scenario as his main rivals need a number of things to happen in order to jump ahead of him in the race for the final wildcard.
"I'm fine. Really, we control our own destiny just like they control their own destiny," said Hamlin. "We don't have to have help from a few other guys. I think it's probably easier on us than it is for the guys that have certain scenarios that have to happen for them to make it. Really, I'm racing this race as if it's just a normal season race like I have the last few years – no different."
Hamlin, a two-time winner at Richmond, says that having to secure a place in the play-off at the 0.75-mile track only makes him more comfortable. During his last four races at the venue he has captured two victories, a second and an 11th-place finish. Besides that, Joe Gibbs Racing has won the past five races at the track. However, the 30-year-old suggests he will race with a cautious approach given what is at stake.
"Here, Martinsville and Pocono, any one of those in a situation where I've got to perform well to make the Chase I'm pretty comfortable," Hamlin said. "We just need to go out there and make sure we don't take too many risks.
"Don't get off on some kind of fuel strategy, protect ourselves in the case that maybe those guys coming down and getting fuel and trying to run to the end... we've got to protect all of that to make sure we play offensively, but defensively also."
Last year Hamlin started the Chase as the top seed thanks to his six wins during the regular season but was unable to hold on to the position and despite entering the final race of the year with a chance of winning the championship, he struggled under pressure and finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the title race.
He says this year he would be more of a underdog in the Chase given his less spectacular regular season, which features just one win so far.
"We were expected to win it all last year," he said. "Everyone expected us to. We expected to. With that hot summer that we had where we won all those races, we had the mindset of going out there and winning a championship. This year, if we get in, it's going to be like we're starting at the bottom, so we've got nowhere to go but forward. Where last year we started at the top and it's hard to maintain that, trust me.
"It's going to be a little different mindset. I'm going to look at it, personally, as everything from here on out if we do make it is a bonus, because luckily that one win could possibly give us a new lease on the season."
Hamlin has been a Chase contender since his first full season in Cup in 2006, when he finished third in the championship.