Driver Denny Hamlin looks out from his car at the end of practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sylvania 300 auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
LOUDON, N.H. -- One and done? Title hopes up in smoke? For the Chase drivers who ran out of gas or good luck in the playoff opener, they have kept the faith that their championship pursuits aren't spoiled because of a bad start.
But it doesn't help.
Denny Hamlin, inconsistent all season, is stuck in 12th place and already 41 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. He struggled all day in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship kickoff last week at Chicagoland and staggered to a 31st-place finish.
Matt Kenseth (10th) and Jeff Gordon (11th) are ahead of him in the standings, yet Gordon is only 25 points out of first. Not an enviable position, but certainly no reason to panic -- not with nine races left starting today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Hamlin, though, could find his championship push extinguished with a similar poor run in the No. 11 Toyota. He couldn't find a spark Friday and qualified 28th, the worst start among the 12 Chase drivers.
"We're struggling right now just to get consistency and I can't pinpoint one particular place where we need to work," Hamlin said. "Someone asked me where we lacked and I don't know. It's something different every two to three weeks. It's painful at this moment."
A year ago, Hamlin was on the brink of his first championship heading into the finale at Homestead. Hamlin entered the race leading the standings only to spin out and slide through the grass to derail his effort and pave the way for Jimmie Johnson to win the title for a fifth straight season.
For Hamlin, it wasn't just a bitter end to the season -- it seemed to set the tone for this one.
He had only one top 10 in the first eight races. While he did get hot late, he had only one victory and qualified for the Chase with a wild card.
"I don't think anyone has huge expectations for us this Chase," Hamlin said. "I personally do and still do. I think that we've really underachieved quite a bit, so you get frustrated."
Kenseth and Gordon certainly understand Hamlin's frustrations. Unlike Hamlin, Gordon and Kenseth had two of the cars to beat last week until they ran out of gas in a finish decided on fuel mileage. Because Gordon and Kenseth have been so steady all season (each driver has multiple victories), it's easier to envision their cars getting back on a roll today and making a charge up the standings.
Kenseth ran out of gas at the end and was pushed across the finish line by JJ Yeley. NASCAR ruled the last-lap assistance was illegal and dropped Kenseth to 21st in the final running order.
Kenseth said it's too early in the Chase to worry about one tough finish.
"It's not like there is a Hail Mary you can throw," he said, "but it's not time to throw it anyway."
Harvick leads Chicagoland winner Tony Stewart by seven points. Seven drivers are 10 to 20 points the leader, including Johnson.
"It's just too early to be overly concerned," Johnson said.
He should know.
Johnson has plowed out of horrible Chase debuts to storm toward the championship. He opened the 2006 Chase with a 39th-place finish, then used five straight top-two finishes (yes, top two) to win his first championship. He was 25th last year in the opener which sent him into the second Chase race down 26 points. So every driver gets at least one finish they can toss out over the 10 pressure-packed races.
"The hard thing is, one day can make or break your in the Chase," Stewart said. "But it doesn't define what your organization is about because of one good or bad day."
Two great results don't define the Chase, either. Greg Biffle won the first two Chase races in 2008, but had only two other top fives and finished third in the standings. It can take four or five races before the true contenders emerge.
Hamlin wants to race his way back into contention. He is at a terrific track for the second round of the Chase. His 7.2 average finish is best among active drivers. Up ahead for Hamlin is Martinsville (four wins), Texas (swept last season) and Homestead (2009 victory).
He called last week a "nightmare-type race for us."
Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, knows any chance at salvaging his season rides on New Hampshire.
"We still have a shot if we get just consistent and find the consistency that we had last year," he said.