Denny Hamlin put together one of the best regular seasons in his NASCAR Cup Series career, but there was one crucial thing missing. It’s not hard to know what because everyone saw more than a few of them slip through his fingers.
Hamlin is winless going into the postseason. As such, he doesn’t have much security — through playoff points — to fall back on should the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team encounter trouble. Hamlin led the series with the best average finish of 9.1, but for as good as he was early on, he wound up in a battle with Kyle Larson for the regular-season title.
Larson edged out Hamlin in the final few weeks. In doing so, he knocked off one more top-10 finish (18 to Hamlin’s 17) and one more top-five finish (14 to Hamlin’s 13) to lead those categories. With attention shifting to Larson’s championship chances, Hamlin is seeded seventh with 15 playoff points.
“We don’t have that buffer that we wish we had, certainly, but we feel good enough on our performance,” Hamlin said. “And honestly, it doesn’t matter how many playoffs that you have. If you beat yourself, you’re going to be out. Or you don’t perform well enough, you’re going to be out early in the playoffs. So, I think our risk of going out earlier is higher because we don’t have as much of a buffer as we’ve had before, but that’s just part of it.
“Things didn’t work out the way we hoped; still had a great regular season, and wherever the chips fall, they fall. This is just part of the type of racing we have now. You just have to perform in a three-week schedule — and then you need to perform, really, just in one race.”
NASCAR adopted an elimination-style playoff format in 2014. The final 10 races are split into rounds of three races each before narrowing the field down to four drivers for the championship race. Hamlin has made the Championship 4 three times.
“I would have loved to race Kyle Larson these last 10 races with a 17-point deficit and see who comes out on top,” Hamlin continued. “Or have the bigger sample size that we used to have with 10 races, but I think they (NASCAR) kind of deemed from a ratings perspective it’d be better if we had a one-race winner take all.”
As the postseason gets set to begin at Darlington Raceway (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Hamlin says the Toyotas have closed the gap to the competition. There is still a deficit, but it’s in areas like horsepower that teams can’t do anything about given the rules and parts freeze. But they can make their cars better, and that helps the chances of winning.
Hamlin came close to doing that a few times before racing fate intervened in one way or another. The No. 11 Toyota led 754 laps in the first 15 races with 11 top-10 finishes, including a stretch of six straight races where Hamlin finished fourth or better.
All year, Hamlin has confidently proclaimed that his team can win any weekend. The question now is whether he can finally break through in the playoffs or if there is a way forward for Hamlin to contend for the title without wins.
“We never say that, hey, we’re going to consistently make our way through the playoffs,” Hamlin said. “We go there thinking, ‘OK, how can we win and punch our ticket?’ But if we don’t have a winning car, I’ve got to do what it takes to get us to the next round by any means possible. If it’s through consistency, that’s OK.
“I think our path is clear on what we need to do — we need to go out there and win, and if we can’t, our performance is still good enough to make it to the final four in a different way. There are several different avenues in which you can make, and we’ll exploit each one given whatever our situation is in that moment.”
Hamlin has nine playoff wins in his career.