Denny Hamlin is putting together an unmemorable postseason. In the best way possible.
“It’s been interesting, we’ve had six playoff races, and only two of them have mattered to me,” Hamlin said over the weekend. “It’s just different that we were able to… not take off, but really mentally take off for four weeks in the middle of our playoffs. That’s how the format is, and we’ve been very fortunate to win the early races. That’s given us the liberty that we’ve got to go out there and enjoy (the Roval), and our focus has been shifted to the Round of 8 and how we can win at those tracks.”
It’s been well documented by now how Hamlin’s season has unfolded. Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team tore through the regular season, but faced criticism for the various race wins that slipped through their fingers. Hamlin also lost the regular-season championship to a red-hot Kyle Larson in the final few weeks.
Except, it mattered more to outsiders than the team, because the stat sheet gave them the confidence that they were still legitimate championship contenders. It didn’t take long for that to finally show up in the form of trophies.
In the opening race of the playoffs, Hamlin quieted everyone with a dominant win at Darlington. Three weeks later, it was more of the same when Hamlin won at Las Vegas. Both wins locked him into the next round of the postseason right off the bat. In the first four races, Hamlin led 545 laps with an average finish of 3.25.
With those victories in the bag, the other two races in each round became stress-free; exercises in keeping up momentum than needing points. But they haven’t stopped chasing finishes.
Through the first two rounds and six races, Hamlin showed the form he had early in the year with impressive consistency. Hamlin’s finished no worse than ninth, won twice, and led laps in each race for a total of 576.
Aside from the wins, it could be argued that Hamlin’s barely been mentioned. There’s been no need to, because there’s been plenty to follow with other playoff drivers fighting for their postseason lives or with each other. Hamlin’s driver and team, Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing, was the center of attention after a big day at Talladega.
For Hamlin, it’s the calmest and quietest playoff run he’s had.
“It is because a lot of the media focus shifts to who’s going to be in and who’s going to be out, the top four in and out,” Hamlin said. “Rightfully so, that’s where the intensity really ramps up for those teams, and it’s an interesting storyline.”
Without much to worry about or things going wrong, it has also provided a good mental space for Hamlin and his team
“No doubt,” he said. “All it does is fuel me to want to win the first race next week as well, because I know how good it’s been. It would be counterinitiative to say, well, then you lose your focus. But Vegas showed we locked right back in, and our performance has still been very, very good in the playoffs.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s been a meaningful race for us or not. We’ve acquired more points than anybody else this season. Doesn’t matter if it’s the full regular season or through the playoffs, we’re still on top, and hopefully, we can continue that for four more weeks.”
The future Hall of Famer is working on a career year regardless of his final points position. With his time spent at the front at the Roval on Sunday afternoon, Hamlin has set a new personal mark for most laps led in a season (1,397). His next two finishes inside the top 10 will set a new mark in that category, as will three more top-five finishes.
Hamlin is a winner at each of the three tracks coming up that will set the Championship 4. He has been among the four drivers competing for a championship three times, including the last two years.
“I certainly feel like there’s been less pressure even though I feel like we’ve been at the top all year long,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s just been a pretty easy year when it’s come to the pressures of are you going to win your first (race) or whatever it might be. I know that each and every week, I give it my best effort, and I never go home any week after a race saying I didn’t do my best.
“I’m going to have to deal with the result because I can’t change it, and as long as I do my job to the best of my ability, that’s going to give us our best shot, and I’m fine either way. I wish I could win 36 weeks of the year. Ultimately, that’s my goal every year going in: win every week and get to the final four somehow.”