The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are a week away, and a few championship favorites seem clear. Chase Elliott leads the series in wins and his Hendrick Motorsports team claimed the regular season championship. Ross Chastain, who also has multiple wins, has been consistently fast in his Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet.
Perhaps not included in the conversation is Denny Hamlin although, given the position of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver in the championship standings — 14th — that’s understandable. Hamlin has two wins but has not been as consistently dominant as in years past.
Hamlin’s two wins are included in his five top-five finishes this season, and he’s led less than 400 laps. Early in the season, Hamlin was trying to claw his way out of a hole that had him outside the top 25 in points.
Overlooked? Maybe. Disrespected, considering his Joe Gibbs Racing team is fully capable of contending?
“Not really,” Hamlin said. “I don’t think the competition disrespects us or anything, but we’ve just been one of those teams that’s been super hit or miss. I think about [Watkins Glen] and I’m running 35th with my tongue hanging out, and I’m like, ‘Can I do this anymore?’ And then I wake up and realize, well, I should have won the last two weeks in a row. It’s amazing how week to week [things change] in our camp right now.
“It’s frustrating. I wish we knew things we could do to fix it, but we’re trying.”
Martinsville Speedway is part of what needs fixing. Hamlin has been a master of the Virginia short track over the years, with five wins and nearly 2,000 laps led. But in the spring, his No. 11 team was far off the pace as Hamlin finished multiple laps down in 28th place. So this week, Hamlin is intensely focused on the two-day organizational test at Martinsville.
“This is not a track that is going to be in our wheelhouse, which is unfortunate knowing the knowledge that I have here and knowing what I need to get out of the car for speed,” Hamlin said. “If it won’t do it, it won’t do it, so I have to maximize at least what I have. I’m just trying to figure out how to come out here and honestly run top 10 and improve upon my five laps down or whatever I was in the spring.”
Martinsville is the Championship 4 deciding race. Hamlin has not won at the track since 2015 and in three of his previous five Martinsville races finished 24th or worse. The test will also be beneficial in that Hamlin admitted he’s relearning the track with a new car and a new tire, no longer able to rely on what he’d done there for over a decade.
Hamlin’s tone might imply a change in confidence from earlier this year when he and crew chief Chris Gabehart (pictured at right, above, with Hamlin) were adamant about how good — or “dangerous” as Gabehart put it — the team is. Not so, Hamlin says.
“We’re dangerous because I think the playoff schedule lends itself nicely to us,” Hamlin said. “Now, there are two to three racetracks in that playoff where we’re like, ‘Ugh, we need to find a way to just kind of run 15th those races and just not have the races where we run 20th to 25th and not get any stage points.’ Like, get me 30 points on that day.”
In other words, Hamlin believes his team is a championship contender, but he’s not downplaying the frustration this year has brought. If Hamlin doesn’t earn any additional bonus points Saturday night at Daytona, he’ll go into the postseason trying to fight for his first title with the second-lowest amount he’s ever accumulated.
“It will be frustrating if we’re kind of average — kind of good the first couple of races and then we get to a track where we know we’re not going to be good at, and there’s nothing we can do [because] we just don’t have the speed,” said Hamlin. “That will be frustrating. Now also, it’s going to be frustrating because we’ve left an enormous amount of playoff [points] on the table from DQs [Pocono] to lack of execution, giving our opponents playoff points that we know we’re going to be racing for cutoff spots. So, it’s been on us.
“This has been our deal, and this has been a frustrating year as a whole. I never actually would have imagined that we probably should have five or six wins with the Next Gen car. I thought it would take me a while to get used to it, and our team was so honed in on Gen6 that it’s like, dang, we had race-winning cars 45 percent of the time. To be able to look at this year saying, ‘Well, it’s not as much, it’s more like 30 percent’ — that’s still pretty good for an old dog and a new car.
“So I think we certainly have been optimistic about that and never thought we’d have the chance to win as many races in the first year of this car. And none of us thought we were going to run this bad when we do run bad.”