TALLADEGA, Ala. – For most in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage, discovering an engine issue during qualifying would be considered highly unfortunate.
Denny Hamlin, however, viewed his motor woes on Saturday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway as a stroke of good luck.
By realizing the issue during his flying lap in Busch Pole Qualifying, Hamlin was able to get his car slowed up, get back to the pit area and relay to his crew that they needed to make an engine swap. Had he completed his run Saturday, the story might have been different.
“We were maybe 15 seconds from finishing dead last in the race, so I’m very, very fortunate it happened there at the end of the lap,’’ said Hamlin, who topped Friday practice with an average speed of nearly 205 miles per hour. “It broke down the backstretch.
“Obviously, starting last will be tough, but we’ll be fine,’’ Hamlin added. “It’s Talladega; anything can happen.’’
That kind of confidence is critical as Hamlin, a four-time Cup Series winner this season, chases his first championship after years of futility, near-misses and bad luck in the standings.
That chase would receive a huge boost with a win in the 1000Bulbs.com 500. Hamlin won at Talladega in 2014, but in recent years the game on superspeedways has become more about having friends in the draft and manufacturer battle lines than ever before.
As far as Hamlin’s concerned, though manufacturer alliances are a positive thing, in the end they might not get him all the way to victory lane. With that in mind, he’s looking out for himself first.
Asked when he would focus on his own interests, Hamlin was quick to offer a reply.
“Lap one,’’ Hamlin said. “I always have that mentality to do whatever I need to do for myself to get the best finish I can, and that’s equaled good success.
“If you’re just kinda riding a line and willing to not make a move you’re essentially conceding an opportunity to win the race. If you are eighth in line with the manufacturer, you’re essentially saying, ‘I’m just here to help the first seven in front of me,’ and I don’t think many are willing to have that outcome,” Hamlin continued. “It looks good in practice, but in the race it’s really hard to execute. You try to play the percentages and figure out where you need to be; you obviously want to be up front because the leader doesn’t wreck too many times, but second place does and on back. The odds increase with every position that you’re in.
“You’ve just got to, as a driver, kind of analyze the situation and look around and see how anxious everyone is. Do you sense a wreck? If you sense it, it’s probably coming. That’s where you’ve really got to trust your instincts and put yourself in the best place possible. Sometimes that’s backing out and getting out of it and seeing how it plays out.”
With all that in mind, instead of stressing about things he can’t control, Hamlin is staying focused on what he can control – himself – and staying as calm as possible under fire.
“I’m just going to do the best job that I can do at that particular race and not worrying about what anyone else is doing,’’ Hamlin said. “All I control is like the best finish for myself. I can’t be worried about strategy. That’s the crew chief’s job. I can’t worry about the car setup. That’s the crew chief’s job.
“The best I can do is drive it to the best of my ability, give the best information and let the results fall where they may. I’m confident if we can do that and we execute a decent race this weekend, our performance will be plenty next week (to advance in the playoffs).”