Denny Hamlin is entering a stretch of races that should see inch closer back to victory lane again in his No. 11 Toyota. See, its not like the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has been bad. He’s not by any stretch of the imagination.
It’s just coupled the fact that Hamlin dominated a year ago in winning seven times in his march to the Championship 4 as well as starting 2021 off where he left off in 2020 with eight top fives in the first nine races including five of those eight in the top three and then only having three top fives in the last 12 and not having won in his last 26 starts, it seems like their performance has maybe taken a bit of a dip.
I strongly urge anyone looking at that to beware of questioning Hamlin and his team. You need to dig a bit deeper and go below the surface to really take a look at them and see that they’re not as far off as one would might think.
Part of the decline in stats and I use that word “decline” loosely, is the fact that when his top fives turned into top 10’s instead, was around the same time that Hendrick Motorsports really started turning it on.
Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman combined to win seven of those 12 races. Them plus William Byron have been dominating the top five in general which slides Hamlin back a few spots. See, over this 12 races stretch, Hamlin still has six top 10’s and the only reason it’s not more is due to a crash not of his doing in Talladega, rain in COTA, running out of gas coming to the white flag while leading in Pocono and a speeding penalty last week in Atlanta. If his gas tank has just a little bit more in it, he’s finishing at the very worst second place in Pocono. You take the speeding penalty away in Atlanta and that’s another top five which means he’s heading to New Hampshire this weekend on the heels of four straight.
But people want to focus on negatives and see that his finishes are taking a dip and that Kyle Larson has made up over 100 points on him since May. I say watch out.
“I’m grateful that we are still leading in points,” Hamlin said via a weekly team release ahead of this weekend’s race in Loudon. “I feel like we’ve gone through a month or two of not performing at our peak. Our bad days are finishing fifth or sixth – we’re not out to lunch. But we’re just not as dominant as we were. We’re not leading laps like we were at the beginning of the season. So, we’re just weathering the storm until we get a little better. And I think we can start to see that in the next few races. There’s definitely some pride in winning the regular season championship. Don’t think I’m not trying.”
Just look at what he said. He feels like they’ve gone through a couple of months at not performing at their peak. They’re still right there. Hamlin is a hell of a driver, one of the best in the sport today and his crew chief, Chris Gabehart, is one of the best on pit road. They had speed early and are close now. They are good enough to find it again and I think that they will.
It could may start this weekend in New Hampshire to where Hamlin has finished runner-up in each of the last two years.
“We’re confident going back there,” Hamlin said. “Our short track package has been better this year. It’s something we put an emphasis on because of the final race being in Phoenix. We got our tails kicked there last year in the Championship 4, so we put more focus on it and we’ve gotten better.”
He’s not wrong either.
He finished third in Phoenix, third in Martinsville, second in Richmond and seventh at Dover. We’ve not had a short track since. We have Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix to make up 40% of the playoffs on short tracks.
Hamlin, led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville. He led 207 of 400 laps a week later in Richmond. He also led 33 laps in a third place effort at Phoenix.
No one has led as many laps on short track than he has.
Then look at what’s ahead after this two week break. They go to Watkins Glen to where Hamlin has three top four finishes in his last four tries. After an inaugural road course race at Indy, it’s to Michigan to where he has two runner-ups in his last three starts. Then it’s to Daytona to where he’s one of the best, if not the overall best, superspeedway racer in the series right now.
After that, we kick off the playoffs in Darlington to where Hamlin was fifth back in May and has three top fives in his last four tries on the Lady in Black. Then it’s to Richmond to where he dominated this past spring and has eight top six finishes, five of which being in the top three, in his last 10 starts. Finally, we close out the first round at Bristol where won the night race in 2019.
I think he catches fire here soon and once they taste victory, and they will, it will come in bunches after.