Denny Hamlin is delivering.
Be it on this site or NASCAR Radio, this writer has taken the driver of the FedEx Camry to task a few times for doing the opposite. He is, after all, 0-13 in the quest for a championship, and had the worst statistical season of his career last year. During that same period, Kyle Busch has won races in bunches, and earned his first title in 2015; Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards were consistent contenders, the latter being just laps away from a championship in the 2016 finale; and Erik Jones scored his very first win in the NASCAR Cup Series last July at Daytona.
Hamlin has sniffed the championship just once in recent years (2014) and is now working with his fifth different crew chief in Chris Gabehart.
Seven races in though, the Joe Gibbs Racing vet has delivered with two wins, a 5.7 average finish, and a second-place position in points.
The manner of Hamlin’s win in Texas over the weekend is just as impressive as the stats. Two pit road penalties forced him to the rear of the field, and he also cost himself a few valuable seconds under green flag conditions when he missed pit road at one point. Yet he never sounded rattled or defeated over the radio, and rebounded in the best way possible.
Although in recent years he has been one of the most prominent drivers when it comes to pit problems — he led the series with a double-digit number of speeding penalties just three years ago — this time, they weren’t race killers. In fact, Hamlin and the No. 11 team’s tripwires of speeding and uncontrolled tires have been overcome for six top-10 finishes and four top-fives.
After the checkered flag Sunday, Gabehart took to the team radio to say, with what could have been a small tone of disbelief, that the team still hasn’t executed a clean race yet has two wins. Not surprisingly, he “can’t wait until we start executing.”
“What’s neat about the year for me, and I think Denny would tell you the same, is every race thus far I can point to key scenarios in the race that had we fixed that — whatever that is, it’s been different every week — we would have finished better than we finished,” Gabehart later said. “We haven’t optimized our races yet, and that’s encouraging. Now, you’re racing against the best teams in the world, so it’s difficult to have a flawless race. It’s not an easy thing. It’s one thing to identify, it’s another thing to fix. That’s something we got to work on.
“But the exciting thing is, we never leave the racetrack guessing where we could have done better. So, in that regard we definitely haven’t reached our potential.”
Gabehart has the right attitude, Hamlin the talent, and the combination is paying off early. Then again, Hamlin has always had the talent and the equipment. So, don’t crown him the most improved or comeback driver of the year just yet, or even pencil him in for a Championship 4 spot. It’s too soon. But after being so hard on him and stressing how he should be performing much higher consider the organization he drives for, Hamlin deserves some column inches about being off to the best start he’s ever had in his Cup Series career.
“We’re doing a good job of plugging away,” Hamlin said Sunday night. “We’re getting stage points. We’re running up front. What I care about is running good every single week, and this year has just been different than the last four or five years, I guess. Just in the sense it seems like we have speed. With a little execution I certainly believe we easily could be leading the points.
“The 18 [Busch] has out-executed us a few races and that’s really been the difference. So, I really believe that this team is not even close to where it’s going to be in two months, so pretty optimistic.”
Same here. Hamlin & Co have created intrigue around just how much they can deliver before the season is over.