Ill-timed cautions have become predictable for Denny Hamlin, and they continue to trap him in the wrong spot.
On Sunday night in Las Vegas, Hamlin was one of 11 playoff drivers caught one lap down when a caution flew during green flag pit stops with less than 35 laps to go. The caution was beneficial to Kurt Busch and a few others, who had extended the fuel cycle and benefited from the track position. Hamlin, forced to take the wave around, had two more cautions and an overtime attempt to try to work back to the front of the field.
“I called it before it even happened, that we go into the last stage, and he (crew chief Chris Gabehart) mentions to me on the radio that the strategy would be similar to what it would be in Stage 2,” said Hamlin after finishing third. “I just knew that we’d been caught – I don’t know how many times this year by people that just stay out because they’re having a sub-par day. They’re doing the best strategy for them, but it traps the guys that are upfront all day.
“We just got caught again. But our hand got forced by the 88 [Alex Bowman], by them coming in early. We both had a lead over most of the field, so I would have thought we would have ran a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. … They didn’t make us pit, we decided to pit, but it’s a lap too late again.”
Bowman pitted one lap sooner than Hamlin. When Hamlin returned to the track, Bowman used the advantage to get around Hamlin for a position, which proved valuable as the caution flew just moments later on lap 237. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not pitted and was able to do so under caution as Bowman received the free pass, and Hamlin took the wave around.
Hamlin led a race-high 121 laps and won the second stage. With the choose rule, Hamlin lined up sixth for the overtime attempt and got to Matt DiBenedetto’s door for the second position but could not make the pass.
A few weeks ago in Darlington, a caution inside the final 50 laps also proved costly for Hamlin. First, he had missed pit road, and then the caution flew a few laps later that mired him mid-pack, and he was unable to get back inside the top 10.
But Las Vegas turned out to be Hamlin’s best finish in four playoff races. And he goes into Talladega with a healthy 58-point lead on the cutline.
“If you would have asked me before the day, I would have definitely been happy about it, but I just hate missing out on victories, to be honest,” said Hamlin. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been this fast in so many races and just not finishing it like I feel like we should.
“But if we’re upfront, that’s what counts, and that’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix is to keep getting stage wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix, and hopefully, you’ll get a championship out of it. That’s what we’re all here for, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”