Denny Hamlin knows he probably must win at the Charlotte road course to keep his championship hopes alive, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said his focus isn’t on the playoffs after finishing 16th at Richmond.
“Just worried about running better,” Hamlin said as he walked to the garage. “With our teammate winning and us running like a bag of s***, it’s disappointing every week.”
Hamlin started second but had an up-and-down night in the Federated Auto Parts 400 while Kyle Busch drove to victory lane for the seventh time and locked himself into the Round of 12. But for Hamlin, a 32nd-place finish in last weekend’s postseason opener at Las Vegas and his performance Saturday night has him at the bottom of the playoff grid in a 29-point hole.
Hamlin was optimistic after practice, thinking his No. 11 Toyota would be better than how the night unfolded. However, Hamlin noted that when the green flag dropped, “I knew we were in trouble kind of the first 10 laps. There’s a specific kind of feel you have to have at this kind of racetrack, and it had a similar feel to it in practice, but we get in the race and with traffic and everything it’s not cooperating with me.”
The night was less than 60 laps old when things began to get away from Hamlin. He nearly spun off Turn 4 after getting tagged from behind by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and while he was able to keep the car under control and get straightened out, the race stayed green with Hamlin soon on pit road.
Losing a lap but with fresher tires, Hamlin drove from 24th to put himself back on the lead lap and then into the top 10 by the end of the stage. The first stage went caution free. Hamlin finished ninth.
In the final stage, Hamlin fell a lap down again before heading to pit road for his final stop around Lap 324 when Jeffrey Earnhardt brought the caution out. The untimely yellow flag trapped Hamlin a lap down and mired in the pack, where he stayed until the checkered flag.
“We were just bad all day,” Hamlin said. “Just seems like once we get in race trim just seems like can’t get the car to do anything that it’s supposed to do. I can make it go fast for a lap in qualifying, just will not do the things that it’s supposed to do around the racetrack and the things that when I watch the 18 [Busch] it’s doing successfully.
“So, it’s just really disappointing.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs admitted the year as a whole hasn’t been the kindest to Hamlin, who’s in his 14th season driving the No. 11 car.
“When he got spun there, I don’t know how much that meant to the car or whatever, but it’s been a very tough year for Denny,” Gibbs said. “I think for both [Denny and Erik Jones]. I think obviously Erik’s first go‑around on this, I think he’ll just have at it, and I think Denny, what we’ve got to do is throw caution to the wind. That’ll be two cars that I think will just be ‑‑ we’ve got a lot of ground to make up, and so I think they’ll be very aggressive.”
Hamlin has never been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round.