MOORESVILLE, N.C. – For the second year in a row, Denny Hamlin is entering the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as one of the favorites to capture the championship.
Hamlin is just hoping this chance doesn’t end like his previous attempts to secure the title.
Last year, Hamlin made the Championship 4 and appeared to be in prime position to win at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway, before an oversized piece of tape applied on the final pit stop led to overheating problems and extra pit service that ultimately kept Hamlin from taking the crown.
In 2010, he appeared to be on his way to dethroning Jimmie Johnson after Johnson’s run of four-straight championships, but issues at both Phoenix Raceway and Homestead – the final two races in the 10-race playoff format at that time – opened the door for Johnson to rally and earn a fifth title in a row.
The Chesterfield, Va., native has been close in the past, but close doesn’t cut it in the NASCAR Cup Series. Hamlin knows that this is arguably his best shot yet to seal the deal.
“Just a lot of stuff has changed on and off the race track. I think I’ve changed a little bit as a driver. I’ve just adapted quite a bit as well,” Hamlin said during his playoff media availability on Thursday. “It’s tough to say what has automatically just flipped the switch and made the results what they’ve been over the last two years or so. Certainly, there’s a process we’ve put in to preparing for each week that is working for us; it’s working for me. Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) and I have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us.
“Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening, and that’s what you need,” Hamlin added. “From the start of 2019 – January 2019 to now – there’s no question that I’m a different person than I was then. There’s a lot of changes that have happened on and off the track that have attributed, I’m sure.”
Asked how long it took for he and his team to get over the defeat they were handed last fall at Homestead, Hamlin noted that he and Gabehart “didn’t even talk about Homestead” after it was over.
They just kept pushing forward, evidenced by Hamlin’s third Daytona 500 victory in February.
“I think it was probably right around Daytona time this year, when we were just talking and spit-balling about what we were doing this year coming up and our strategy for the first part of the season, going through all the analytics from the past season, and he’s like, ‘are you not going to ask me why I put that big piece of tape on your car?’ I was like, no, I assumed you had a reason for it, so I figured it is what it is,” Hamlin recalled. “There’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is go out there and drive as fast as I can every single lap and tell you the information that you need to make the car go faster. I did what I felt like all I could do to win the championship and it didn’t work out.
“I know he’s (Chris Gabehart, crew chief) an aggressive guy that goes for it. I knew that there was some sort of reason why he did what he did, and I wasn’t going to fault him for it,” Hamlin continued. “It didn’t take me any time to get over it. We had a great year. We came off a winless season before to a six-win season that year. We won the must-win situation at Phoenix that we needed to get to the Championship 4. It didn’t take me any time to get over it, and it showed that we won the Daytona 500 again this year.
“We continued our momentum regardless of what happened in the final race.”
With six Cup Series wins this season and several tracks where he is historically fast early in the playoffs, Hamlin said he doesn’t want Gabehart to change the approach that has gotten the No. 11 team to the point they’re at currently.
“I want him to stay that way,” said Hamlin of Gabehart’s aggressive strategy calls. “He’s very aggressive with strategy and things like that. I do not want him to play it safe unless he sees an opportunity where if we play it safe here, we’re guaranteeing some sort of result that we need. That would be the only time that I would like to see him scale back, but it would be tough for that to actually happen.”
In regards to Hamlin’s position for the early playoff rounds, he’s not planning on letting his foot come off the gas, despite a healthy cushion of nearly 50 playoff points entering the postseason.
“I want to see how we do in the first round. These are historically really good tracks for me and I want to see our momentum continue,” Hamlin said. “We’re not going to race any differently, especially in the first round. I think that I’m going to be very aggressive. I’m going to try to get more wins. I just want to see who shows up from the competition standpoint that maybe people have slept on or maybe hasn’t shown everything they had until the playoffs started.
“I think there will be one or two guys that find a way to run significantly better than what they have shown during the regular season and we’re going to have to step up our game accordingly to that.”
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs open Sunday at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway with the 71st Cook Out Southern 500. Live coverage airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.