If Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are the two hottest drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at this point, Denny Hamlin would rank his No. 11 team fourth or fifth. But Hamlin knows he and crew chief Mike Wheeler (pictured at right, above, with Hamlin) need to find about a tenth of a second of speed in the No. 11 Toyota to consistently contend with the pace-setters. Because finishing, no matter the track, hasn’t been the problem for Hamlin. It’s that needed speed to help push him over the hump of not winning races.
“We’re in the top five as much now as I’ve ever been in my career, but yeah, it’s the wins that really seem to elude us,” Hamlin admitted. “I think in 2010 when we won eight races, the end of the races fell right for us, things happened for us. Where it seems like the last few years it’s been some things in our control, some things out that have kept us from winning more races.
“We know that it’s an issue, that we need to win more. But we’re at least putting ourselves in contention to have a chance, so I’d rather have that problem then running 15th every week and trying to figure out how you’re going to get in the top five or 10. It’s just really there are three cars that are continually fast every single week and we’re right there behind them, and we’ve got to figure out how to take that next step.”
In his first four full seasons at the Cup level, Hamlin won eight races. Then he had that eight-win season in 2010. But after his five victories in ’12, Hamlin’s visits to the winner’s circle have slowed down.
One in 2013 and ’14. Two wins in 2015. Three in 2016 and two last season as he finished sixth in the championship, again failing to advance to the title race. Under the elimination-style playoff format, with a winner-take-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, just once has Hamlin been a part of the final four, in 2014.
Meanwhile, Harvick and Busch have combined to win eight of this year’s first 12 races to sit first and third in points, respectively. Combined they’ve led 1,318 laps. Then there’s Hamlin, quietly seventh in points with almost 300 laps led.
Wheeler is just as aware of needing to guide his group to the next level.
“I’m hoping we stumble across the right two or three things to take us from the third-place car, fourth-place car, sixth-place car to being the guy leading the most laps or getting the win,” said Wheeler. “We were in the same boat last year with a couple of guys better than us most of the year, but when we optimized the day we found ourselves leading the laps and getting a win out of it. So Part A is making sure we maximize each weekend on pit road, avoid speeding penalties, get good restarts, maximize the speed we have.
“My job right now is trying to figure out how to get us to be a top-tier car, to lead the most laps. It’s not an easy process, I can tell you that. And the moment you feel you’ve got a grasp on something that will get you closer, things change enough that you have to go about it again. It just never ends.”