Denny Hamlin has expressed disappointment at not having the consistency to battle for the Sprint Cup title this year, admitting his championship hopes are all but over now.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver currently ranks at the bottom of the Chase standing following two poor results that have him already 66 points behind leader Tony Stewart, after only two races in the playoff series. Last weekend at Loudon, Hamlin looked set for a top-10 finish at worst, but he ran out of fuel with three laps to go and finished down in 29th. The result came after a number of issues hampered him at Chicagoland, where he crossed the finish line in 31st.
Hamlin admits it's unlikely his team will be able to recover from such a poor start to their title campaign.
"The run we had going into the Chase where we had three consecutive top-10s, that was the best we had run three consecutive weeks throughout our entire season," said Hamlin. "So for us to ask to do it eight weeks in a row and then move those top-10s to top-fives would be very, very tough to do. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No.
"So that's why we're going out each week just trying to have fun and worrying about winning a race before the season is over with."
Hamlin voiced his concern before the Chase about reliability issues, specifically with engines, probably costing him missing the playoffs. Although he finally made it in, poor qualifying efforts, flat tires and insufficient fuel mileage have been among the reasons for the worst Chase start among the title contenders.
The 30-year-old says he cannot single out a factor as the cause for his current performance and rues bad luck has also played a role in his lack of consistency this year.
"For us we've just honestly been stricken by a lot of bad luck," said Hamlin. "We've run out of fuel, we've gotten in wrecks, we've cut tires, things like that. We've blown engines, we've had mechanical parts that have failed, had so many different things that's bitten us this year. I can't pinpoint one reason why those things have happened.
"I personally think it's more coincidence than anything, but it's just we're just kind of falling into that trend at this point. But we're trying to turn that around and trying to figure out a way to get back to the top 5 in the points, and if we can do that, we're going to be bucking the trend."
Last year Hamlin was Jimmie Johnson's main title rival, winning eight races and leading the points heading into the season finale, before losing out after struggling under pressure at Homestead. This year he started the Chase 12th with only one win to his name, hoping to be an underdog in the title race. He hopes his team is able to find again the speed and consistency of old in the eight races remaining this season, in order to build for a stronger 2012.
"This year we came into the Chase as an underdog," said Hamlin. "We're still obviously very much an underdog. My job to do these next eight races is to go have fun and try to win races. I want to end on a good note and be charging toward the front of the championship points battle by the end of the year.
"Whether we're going to get there or not, I don't know. Maybe there's just not enough races for us. But if there's not, at least we want to be heading in the right direction into 2012."
Hamlin remains to date the only driver to make the Chase in every full season he has entered besides reigning champion Johnson.