HOMESTEAD, Fla — Denny Hamlin warned a week ago that until they can get their qualifying pace figured out, then they’d likely struggle on Sunday’s. That was never more evident than the Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin had started on the pole for 6 of the last 7 races here including 5 straight. He could only muster the 14th best speed on Saturday. 7 of Hamlin’s last 10 qualifying efforts have seen him start outside the top 10. He qualified 24th on the ROVAL and 31st last week in Vegas. If they want a chance, they have to qualify better.
”It’s up to me and the engineers and Chris Gabehart to figure out how we can come off the truck better (for qualifying),” Hamlin said a week ago. In qualifying, all of us were kind of off. It’s just something we have to work on. “Right now, I don’t believe we’re the heat by any means, but we’re executing well, and that’s something we didn’t do well early in the season. I love (Homestead) for sure. We unloaded best, but the field caught up to us (at the test). It’s a track I love racing at, the driver can make a difference with so many options. In the end, have to execute and not make any mistakes.”
That was prophetic. Ho-hum qualifying day and mistakes in the end of Sunday’s race cost him points. 11 of them in fact. He entered the day +6 in points and leaves -5.
That’s because William Byron who was chasing Hamlin scored the pole and 17 stage points. With Hamlin being in 14th at the start, he could only get 1 stage point.
Qualifying hurt them.
Then Byron’s car went away and faded, Hamlin’s was coming on. It was a chance to rue Saturday’s pace and turn it into a day to where he only lost a couple of points.
Byron pit on Lap 205. Ryan Blaney spun exiting pit road 5 laps later bringing out the 4th caution. Hamlin had yet to pit and would do so under caution. He’d restart 4th while Byron was well outside of the top 10.
On the restart, Hamlin sent it three wide and would take the lead off Turn 2. He’d lead the next four laps before his car started going away. He was fading before another caution came out for Tyler Reddick’s Turn 2 crash on Lap 244.
Hamlin had new life. On the final restart, he’d roll off on the front row.
With 10 to go, he was +4 on Byron. He fell to fifth and while battling to gain spots back, he slapped the Turn 4 wall and had to slow before regaining momentum on the front stretch. It cost him a few more spots dropping him to 7th in the end.
It’s why Hamlin is now 5 points behind with one race left.
“We had some good stops,” Hamlin said. “The pit crew did a great job the second half of the race. I was able to get a good restart to get the track position by taking the lead, but I just can’t get my car to go. I can’t get it to turn. We’re just too slow on the short runs. Something we’ve really got to work on for sure. Vegas, it hurt us as well. We’ll just continue to work on it, and I’ll try to work on my technique and try to do anything I can to try to get some more speed out of it.
“We weren’t fast enough to really compete with those guys even when we got the lead. We were just a sitting duck because I couldn’t go anywhere. It’s really tough to keep it up there all day, especially with the shadow into Turn 1. I had my fair share of times in the wall today. Luckily, the car stayed in one piece. I nearly crashed into (Turn) 1. That was exciting and just kept going.”
Hamlin has struggled lately in Martinsville but after a strong test there recently, he feels like his old pace can come alive again next Sunday.
“We’ve got to go get stage points. We can’t be outside the top 10 for the first two stages for sure. That’s the only thing that has really kind of hurt us. Not having a lot of playoff points, we always have to dig ourselves out of a hole every time a round starts. We just have to go there and get it done and perform well. I think we can. We have to qualify well and execute.”