Denny Hamlin and Chris Gabehart told everyone they could do this.
One of the best teams during the regular season — and until Kyle Larson’s summer hot streak, the best team in the NASCAR Cup Series — the only thing missing was a win. Hamlin and his crew chief won stages and dominated races, but victories slipped through their fingers. But the two remained steadfast in their confidence that the No. 11 Toyota Camry was good enough to win on any given weekend.
Through four playoff races, there has been no better team. Hamlin has won two of the four races and has not finished worse than ninth. He’s led laps in all four races for a total of 545, and has been out front in five of the eight stages.
In four races, Hamlin has added 15 playoff points to his total.
“Well, my crew chief would say I missed out on two more wins in the first round,” Hamlin says. “We should have won all of ‘em. I can’t disagree; we probably should have won every race so far in the playoffs. I guess I heard out there we’ve led a third of the laps so far in the playoffs. We’re good.
“We knew that this is what we’re capable of. Really, we’ve shown this all year long. It shows in laps led, top fives, top 10s. For whatever reason, whether it be bad luck, mistakes on our own, we haven’t got all the bunches of wins that we’ve had in the past. Hopefully, this is the start of a really good run.”
A win at Darlington assured Hamlin a spot in the Round of 12. A win at Las Vegas assures him a place in the Round of 8. The driver who came into the postseason being asked if there was a path to the championship without winning is now being asked if he’s become the favorite.
“I don’t care,” Hamlin says. “Nothing matters. You have to play the game. It doesn’t matter who’s the favorite; you have to play. Again, we were dominant last year. [Kevin] Harvick was dominant last year. He didn’t even make the final four. We squeaked in and finished fourth. That’s all we had for car speed.
“This championship is made in one race. It’s so different than it used to be. Our goal going into the year was to make the final four, because it’s really, really hard to predict what can happen in one particular race.
“But favorite? I don’t know. I like our chances on a Phoenix-type track, that’s for sure.”
There is a long way to go to just get to Phoenix, and the championship is a one-race affair. Anything can happen on that day. For now, Hamlin and company can revel in not only again getting the jump on the competition into the next round, but finally backing up what they’ve said all year long.
“It’s just such an advantage to win any race in the playoffs, but certainly the first race of any round because — especially this round — you look at Talladega and Charlotte, you can’t stress enough,” Gabehart says. “Every one of these race teams are professional, so they deal with the stress and the pressure. They handle it. But it’s there. It exists. You can’t look past it; it’s real. We’ve only had to deal with that for what will be two of the first six races of the playoffs.
“Certainly, our team’s been really capable all year long. Every metric other than the win column has been astounding for our team. It’s really been our best year together thus far. You stay up front as much as we have, the wins are going to finally come. They’re coming at the right time.”