Natural disappointment aside at finishing third in the NASCAR Cup Series championship race, Denny Hamlin took solace in the fact he did all he could at Phoenix Raceway.
“There’s nothing else I felt like I could have done differently,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin ran second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. when the race restarted with 58 laps to go. Truex held the lead, having cycled there by pitting right before the caution came out, and Hamlin was the first driver off pit road. A smooth restart led to the two breaking away from their competition and appeared ready to settle the championship amongst themselves.
The final caution with 31 laps to go changed the complexion of the race. Hamlin came off pit road second to Kyle Larson and restarted on the front row with him, but Truex quickly took the spot when the race went green.
Hamlin fell back to fourth at one point during the final stint, the worst running driver of the four playoff contenders. However, a solid long-run car eventually let Hamlin get back to hunting down his title contenders as the laps wound down, but he only got one spot back.
“With every lap, we just kept reeling the 19 [Truex] and 5 [Larson] in,” Hamlin said. “I had to get back around the 9 [Chase Elliott]. Once we did that, we just started making hay towards the front. Track position just means so much. It doesn’t matter big spoiler, small spoiler. These cars just put off such a big wake. We don’t have the horsepower we used to; 750 is probably down 150 from where we used to be. So track position, no matter what racetrack is just a big, big deal.
“You kind of know like when someone gets a restart and controls the race late, it’s so hard. You’re going to need them to really make a huge mistake. My crew chief kept telling me how bad the 5 car was handling, and you could see he was just plowing, but the clean air made up for any deficiencies in that setup.”
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Hamlin has made four championship race appearances, including the last three straight years. However, a championship continues to elude him as Hamlin’s now finished second or third in points four times in his career.
“Well, you think about it, and I think about it, that this is a great opportunity,” Hamlin said of how many shots he’ll get. “This is the last generation of this car that I took a very good liking to over the last three years. We don’t know what the Next Gen car brings. We don’t know will our team be as good. There are just many, many question marks that happen after this. That’s why we really put so much emphasis on let’s try to win this this year.
“But honestly, there’s just nothing else I could have done. There’s nothing else. I drove as hard as I could every lap. I didn’t have the speed for the first 20 (laps). It was evident in a lot of the restarts we had. It was actually overachieved in quite a few. But that was it. I have to live with the result because I can’t change it. Disappointed, absolutely, for sure. But I knew, kind of going into today, I was going to need the race to go a certain way. If it goes the way it did last year, it goes green out, we’re probably winning.
“But it didn’t. We knew that our percentage was low, and that was the case. Many of these races come down to green-white-checkers or shootouts at the end, and that just wasn’t our strength and hasn’t been ever.”