Denny Hamlin’s form in the NASCAR Playoffs has been strong. Is he slowly emerging as the NASCAR title favourite in 2021? The Joe Gibbs driver is already secured in the Round of 8, so can he go all the way and finally land the crown he craves?
Hamlin lacks luck in NASCAR regular season
Denny Hamlin was in an uncomfortable position just a few weeks ago.
With three rounds of the NASCAR regular season left, he still was not locked into the Playoffs.
The #11 was winless, as 13 other drivers took a chequered flag and booked their Playoff spot.
Under the ‘win-and-your-in’ nature, had three new drivers won the final three rounds, Hamlin would not have advanced.
Fortunately for him and his Joe Gibbs crew, he locked in on points after the Indianapolis road course, but that win proved elusive.
Teammates Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr and Christopher Bell had six between them as JGR dominated on 750bhp package short tracks.
Hamlin took 18 top 10s in the regular season. He certainly wasn’t lacking in speed, just luck in closing out races – like being nerfed off by a penalised Chase Briscoe at Indy.
Denny Hamlin driver of the NASCAR Playoffs so far
In the four Playoff races this season, Hamlin has been the dominant driver.
He led 146 laps at Darlington, 197 at Richmond, 65 at Bristol and 137 at Vegas.
He’s been in contention to win every race in the Playoffs.
“We knew that this is what we’re capable of,” he said after claiming his second win of the season at Las Vegas.
His first came in the first race of the Playoffs in the Southern 500.
“Really we’ve shown this all year long. It shows in laps led, top fives, top 10s.
“For whatever reason, whether it be bad luck, mistakes on our own, we haven’t got all the bunches of wins that we’ve had in the past.”
The importance of the win at Vegas and guaranteed Round of 8 spot was not lost crew chief Chris Gabehart.
Following Vegas in the schedule comes Talladega – always an interesting race – and the joker of the Charlotte roval.
It was vital for a driver to book a slot in the semi-finals at the first attempt.
“It’s just such an advantage to win any race in the Playoffs, but certainly the first race of any round,” explained Gabehart.
“Especially this round, you look at Talladega and Charlotte, you can’t stress enough.
“Every one of these race teams are professional so they deal with the stress and the pressure.
“They handle it. But it’s there. It exists. You can’t look past it, it’s real.
Hamlin already thinking ahead to Playoff semi-finals
Now Hamlin is secured in the semi-finals, he can prepare for the races at Kansas, Texas and Martinsville that make up the round.
That’s two 550bhp package races and a 750bhp race at Martinsville.
The 550 low power/high downforce tracks have generally been the reserve of Hendrick Motorsports this season.
JGR has generally been the domain of the 750 high power/low downforce races.
Two of Truex’s three wins came at spring Martinsville and Phoenix – the latter being the championship decider in November.
Hamlin in “Playoff mode”
“I thought through the summer months we made some gains on the 550 tracks,” explained Hamlin.
“That’s really kind of been our bread and butter for the #11 team of my first two years of my relationship with Chris.
“I think we really put a lot of emphasis in the off-season trying to get better at the 750s.
“Chris knows I don’t like to suck on short tracks, so they put a lot of emphasis on that.
“We’re still taking steps and strides forward I believe to try to match them.
“It’s very close. I never thought that we’ve been worse than a third- to fourth-place car on these tracks all year long.
“It’s just we kind of finished the deal [at Las Vegas].”
“We’ve been in Playoff mode for quite a while now.
“I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the what ifs of what can happen that can take you out.
“During the course of my career, I’ve had just about all the what ifs actually happen.
“It’s good to know we’ve got nothing to lose at this point.”
Is Denny Hamlin peaking in the NASCAR Playoffs at the right time?
Momentum in the Playoffs is a very fickle thing. It can be broke just as easily as gained.
Take 2020: Kevin Harvick was the dominant driver in the series. He took nine wins in total, and looked a certainty for a final four spot.
Meanwhile, Chase Elliott had a reasonable season and was in a clutch of drivers who could have advanced from the semi-finals.
Harvick’s form deserted him in the semi-finals and the #4 was eliminated at Martinsville.
Elliott won the Martinsville semi-final eliminator and again at Phoenix to take the title.
It is something Hamlin is wary of.
“You have to play to the game,” he says.
“We were dominant last year. Harvick was dominant last year. He didn’t even make the Final 4.
“We squeaked in and finished fourth. That’s all we had for car speed.
“I just think it’s so hard to predict. This championship is made in one race.
“It’s so different than it used to be.
“Our goals going into the year is to make the Final 4 because it’s really, really hard to predict what can happen in one particular race.”
So, can Hamlin finally land that elusive crown?
Hamlin has 46 career wins. That is the most of any driver to never have won the Cup crown.
Although he has three Daytona 500 wins and is a cert for the Hall of Fame, the one thing missing from his CV is the Cup title.
Hamlin has nothing to prove to anyone. But a Cup title and at least three Daytona 500s would be a remarkable career.
In its 2021 Playoffs predictions, The Focus had Hamlin out in the Round of 8, not through any fault of his own, but just because others had better momentum at the time.
Hamlin has dragged himself out of holes late in the Playoffs before – see 2019.
Given his form so far and JGR’s increasing momentum, Hamlin must be considered at least equal favourite to Kyle Larson – who, all being well, should make the championship race.
Should the 40-year-old make it to the Arizona showdown, what are his thoughts?
“Favourite? I don’t know.
“[But] I like our chances on a Phoenix-type track, that’s for sure…”