CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Can Denny Hamlin still make the Chase?
And it might not be as difficult as it appears.
Hamlin is expected to miss the next five races recovering from a compression fracture in his lower back suffered on a last-lap wreck with former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
He had 180 points during that span a year ago, which is a ton for one of only two drivers -- Jimmie Johnson is the other -- to have never missed NASCAR's 10-race playoff. It basically ends any chance he has of automatically qualifying in the top 10.
But earning one of the two wild-card berths, given to the drivers with the most wins inside the top 20, isn't a reach at all.
A year ago, Jamie McMurray was 20th in the standings with 640 points when the Chase was set after 26 races. Hamlin, now 10th in the standings, has 145 points.
Hamlin would need approximately 495 points -- and one or two wins -- over the 16 races before the September Richmond race to be in position for the top 20 under 2012 standards. To do that he would need an average of 30.9 points per race, or an average finish of around 13th.
Throw in bonus points for a few wins in which he leads the most laps for a maximum 48 points and his average finish could be slightly higher.
It's possible. A year ago, Hamlin's average finish was only 14.1 from race 11 to 26. But he won at Bristol and Atlanta and accumulated 499 points, three more than he would have needed to get into the Chase.
If he did the exact same thing a year ago after missing five races, he would have knocked Jeff Gordon out of the final wild-card spot.
Based on what 20th place has done so far this year Hamlin may have even more leeway. Ryan Newman is in the bubble slot with 121 points, an average finish of 24.2. Average that out over 26 races and the total is only 629.
If you need more proof this is possible, 13 of Hamlin's 22 career wins have come at the tracks he'll compete between his likely return at Darlington and Richmond. Four have come at Pocono, where he'll have two opportunities to win.
As wild as it sounds, the Chase remains a realistic goal.