Late race cautions cost Hamlin a shot at a championship Sunday in Phoenix, for 3rd straight year in Championship 4 he comes up just short

AVONDALE, AZ — He’s heard the comments. When is Denny Hamlin going to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship? 2019 was said to be his best shot. Six wins, 19 top five finishes and 24 top 10’s to go along with 922 laps led led him to the Championship 4 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, his teammate Kyle Busch took home the crown.

Then, last year was supposed to be the year. He backed 2019 up with seven wins, 18 top five’s, 21 top 10’s and 1,083 laps led. Instead, Chase Elliott took the championship. Hamlin, finished fourth in the season finale at Phoenix.

People started labeling him a bust. Can’t win in the big moments. 13 wins, 37 top five finishes, 45 top 10’s and 2,005 laps led in two straight Championship 4 seasons but no championship hardware to show for it. Would he ever get a better chance than what he had in both 2019 and 2020?

He was on the front row for the final restart with 24 laps left. It didn’t get any better than that. Unfortunately, Kyle Larson had just too much and shot out of a cannon once we went back to green.

Hamlin, just didn’t have enough speed in his No. 11 Toyota to counter back. He lost second place to his teammate Martin Truex Jr. then third place to Chase Elliott with 20 to go. He’d get Elliott back with 10 laps left but his car came around too little too late.

“Obviously there’s disappointment, but there’s just nothing — again, there’s nothing else I felt like I could have done differently,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin’s car was best on long run pace and by the end, had arguably the best car out there. He finished fourth and third respectively in the two stages but failed to lead a lap where the other three already had.

He was third of the four drivers for most of the final stage before passing Chase Elliott for second just prior to that that caution for Anthony Alfredo’s crash on Lap 249. That’s the point to where Hamlin’s opportunity was oddly dashed. At that point just prior and on, his car was best.

The caution though allowed for everyone to pit again but with Martin Truex Jr. on pit road during that yellow, he would take over the lead. Hamlin, would be first off pit road among those who did pit and restart second.

He just didn’t have the get off speed that Truex did and had to settle into second. Then, when he’d start to come to life, another caution would fly. He and Truex were pulling further and further ahead of the HMS duo in clean air. But, that yellow bunched them up again and brought everyone down pit road for the final time.

Larson’s crew gave him a money stop with the second fastest pit stop of the entire season. He beat Hamlin off pit road and beat him on the restart. Hamlin, faded to fourth before coming back alive again. There just wasn’t enough long run pace.

“Yeah, I mean, with every lap we just kept reeling the 19 and 5 in,” Hamlin said. “I had to get back around the 9. 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 be. 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. You could see he was just plowing, but the clean air made up for any deficiencies in that setup.”

Larson and his crew chief Cliff Daniels agreed. They had the third or fourth best car. They were just helped by clean air out from.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 05: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 05, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Hamlin finished third and is now 0-for-4 in the Championship 4 including three straight years now. If those cautions don’t fly in the end, Hamlin’s likely the champion instead.

Last year, we went green flag from start to finish in the final stage. This time around, the final green flag run was 24 laps. That cost Hamlin a title.

2021 was still another stout season for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. He started this past year off with eight top five finishes in nine races. It was another hot start for him despite not having won yet. The thing is, he didn’t win at all in the entire regular season and with Larson getting hot, it was Larson, not Hamlin, winning the regular season crown.

He fought back in the postseason though. Hamlin, was always there in Larson’s shadows but it took the schedule to say playoffs for him to turn it on.

Once the postseason started, Hamlin kicked it into high gear. He won each of the first races of each of the first two rounds. Larson, countered though.

Hamlin, stormed out of the gates to a Southern 500 win. Larson countered with a win to close out the opening round at Bristol. Hamlin answered again with a victory in the Round of 12 opener in Las Vegas. Larson came back to win the second round finale on the Charlotte ROVAL.

Hamlin, had two wins, five stage wins including eight of his 12 stages seeing him finish in the top four to go along with a top 10 in the first six playoff races.

Larson, has two wins, three stage wins including seven of his 12 stages being in the top four to go along with five top 10’s in six tries.

The Round of 8 saw the scales tip back to Larson again but like the regular season, the tracks in this span suited Larson. HMS and Larson were at their best on 550 tracks. Hamlin and JGR were at their best on 750’s.

Larson in particular, in 12 races on 550 tracks in 2021, he had five wins, three runner-ups, nine top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas this spring to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.

That’s it.

He’s led 1,737 out of 3,514 possible laps (49%) in these 12 races which also accounts for 70% (1,737 out of 2,474) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 12 stages and has been in the top two in 14 of the 25 stages run on these tracks.

On 750 tracks?

He was seventh in Phoenix (1 lap led) this past spring, fifth (0 laps led) and 14th in Martinsville, 20th (0 laps led) and third (8 laps led) in the two stops in Richmond, second in Dover, seventh in Loudon (0 laps led) and did win at Bristol (175 laps led).

Hamlin meanwhile was at his best. He, finished third this spring in Phoenix (33 laps led), third in Martinsville (276 laps led), second in both races at Richmond (207 laps led, 197 laps led), seventh at Dover, 10th in Loudon (1 lap led) and ninth in Bristol. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville this spring and in the Fall race last week. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.

That’s why this was his time to shine in Phoenix. JGR had showed more speed all year on short tracks over HMS and Hendrick had two of the four cars in the Championship 4.

But, HMS had the speed in the final two 750 starts to tip the scales back and take away another championship from Hamlin.

In a head-to-head matchup on speed alone for Phoenix, Hamlin didn’t have it again in the right phases. 2019 was the tape saga when Chris Gabehart had to think outside the box to try something to make up ground in Homestead. It didn’t work. Hamlin unfortunately just hasn’t had it at Phoenix. He was fourth last year, third this spring and now third on Sunday.

Next year we get a new car. A new era. Can Hamlin sustain this success? It may change everything with this new car, so that’s why he felt like they had their potential best opportunity come and go ahead of them on Sunday.

Well, you think about it, and I think about it, that this is a great opportunity,” he said. “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. Like there’s just many, many question marks that happens after this.

“That’s why we really put so much emphasis on let’s try to win this, 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. 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.”

Does this season end up being labeled as a bust now for him? Does this three year reign classify as one? I mean NASCAR isn’t an easy sport to win a championship in. The fact that he’s done what he’s done in this three year span is remarkable. But, does he reflect back on what might have been? There’s been 108 races and he’s won 14% (15-for-108) of them to go along with 51% (55-for-108) to fives. Do the final three races of each season hold more weight than the other 105?

I don’t think so. He’s won three Daytona 500’s for crying out loud. In this era, Daytona 500’s and Championship 4’s could hold more weight than a one-off championship format. The only thing missing for a title?

Luck.

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