RICHMOND, Va. — One would be hard pressed to find a stronger start to a NASCAR Cup Series season than the one Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin has had this year.
Through nine races, the pilot of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry has finished in the top five eight times, including a season-best runner-up finish during Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.
His worst finish through the first quarter of the schedule was an 11th-place run at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway on Feb. 28, giving Hamlin an average finish of 4.2. He’s also led 694 laps.
That level of consistency has rewarded Hamlin with an 81-point lead over second place in the regular season standings — a cushion of more than a full race — and the Virginia native shows no signs of slowing his torrid pace.
But for all those accolades, one thing is missing from Hamlin’s stat line: A victory.
Hamlin, who won seven races in 2020, is among a strong contingent of winless drivers through nine Cup Series races, a club that includes two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, defending titlist Chase Elliott and 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, who won nine races last year.
The difference between the latter trio and Hamlin, however, is that Hamlin has been in position to win more than half the Cup Series races contested this season. His winless status hasn’t been for a lack of effort, or a lack of speed.
“It’s frustrating, for sure, but I’d rather be where I am than [where] Alex Bowman [is],” Hamlin told reporters following Sunday’s race at Richmond. “I don’t care that he’s got a win. We’re smashing everyone. I’d still rather be where I’m at.”
Hamlin dominated over the weekend at the three-quarter-mile track, leading 207 of 400 laps, but lost control of the race during a restart with 13 laps left after Harvick cut a tire and hit the wall.
Third-running Alex Bowman got a better launch on the bottom of the track, pulled even with Hamlin and eventually passed him with 10 laps to go before driving to victory in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Hamlin was disappointed with coming up short after dominating so much of the Richmond event, but admitted that Bowman’s team figured out a way to be better when the money was on the line.
“We should have won. Certainly the 48 [Bowman] wasn’t better than us all day,” Hamlin noted. “You’ve just got to lead the last lap … have to figure out how to lead that last lap, [because] that’s pretty much all that matters.
“I don’t know if we had a dominant car [at Richmond], but it was definitely top two,” Hamlin added. “There were times the 19 [Martin Truex Jr.] was better and times the 22 [Joey Logano] was better during that one round. But we were certainly top tier.”
Despite a near-miss Sunday, Hamlin isn’t changing his approach as the Cup Series looks toward Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on April 25 and draws closer to the mid-point of the regular season.
“There’s frustration [about not winning], for sure, but it doesn’t change my attitude or work ethic. I’m going to work just as hard to win next week and the week after that,” Hamlin said. “When you’re a competitor, you want to win, especially when you have a great opportunity to win like we had this time around. It just didn’t happen.
“I just have to digest it, look at it and see where we could have been a little bit better. But ultimately there’s nothing I can do. My effort was as high as it could be,” Hamlin continued. “There’s nothing that’s glaring that I feel like I could have or should have done different. Maybe there is. I’ll go back and look at it, [see if we can] figure it out.
“All in all, it just seemed like the 48 [Bowman] had it gripped up there for a couple laps at the end.”
As for his approach toward the Cup Series playoffs, Hamlin’s goal is simple – acquire as many playoff points as possible so he has a buffer when it comes time to set the Championship 4, whether that’s through stage wins, race wins or by winning the regular-season championship.
“We don’t know if we need [a points cushion] until the playoffs. If we had this performance, we’d just go right to Phoenix and be fine. But you can’t plan on that,” Hamlin tipped. “You could have a bad race, anything can happen. You don’t know what you need until you need it, so we’re trying to do the best we can and get all the points we can.
“Ultimately all we can control is our effort week-to-week. I feel like we’ve done that well so far.”