Through two NASCAR Cup Series playoff races, Denny Hamlin is two-for two….for two?
In the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and last Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, it wasn’t the Joe Gibbs Racing driver who brought home the win.
In each race he finished second to non-playoff drivers – Petty GMS Motorsports’ Erik Jones and Hamlin’s own 23XI Racing driver, Bubba Wallace.
For Hamlin, who only has seven top-five finishes (including two wins) this season, it meant he lost out on the chance to earn five playoff points for each win. He currently only has 13 playoff points, which ranks sixth most in the playoff field.
“Running second and being locked-in pretty much going into the last race, well, that’s great, but I need playoff points,” Hamlin said Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “That’s what I really feel like we keep losing is the ability to have playoff points to get us through the next two rounds because we’re going to have to start the next round probably at a points deficit once again. So we have opportunities to win races and get more playoff points and we’re not executing on that, which is where my frustrations come in.”
While Hamlin may be concerned about the larger picture of the playoff, he said he isn’t sweating anything heading into Saturday’s night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Going into the first playoff elimination race, Hamlin sits third on the playoff grid, 47 points above the cutline.
“We go into the week believing that we’re locked in,” Hamlin said. “I mean, maybe not statistically, but it would take an act of nature from God that would keep us out of there. So we’re gonna go in there like we’re locked in, and I’m gonna push as hard as I can to get a race win like I have been for the first couple of weeks.”
Though, Hamlin added there was one area that he pulled on the reigns at Darlington and Kansas as a precautionary measure.
“I would say certainly I’ve been a little bit more reserved on restarts the first couple of weeks to make sure I don’t take myself out, put myself in a bad position that gives me a bad finish early in a round,” Hamlin said. “Because then you’re having to play catch up. And so, for me personally, it’s all about how do I start off strong, that way I can start to taper my finishes as that round goes on versus forcing myself to then (go) ‘okay, if I don’t run top five this week and every stage and every finish, then I’m going to be in a bad points position.’ And then you just force yourself into mistakes by doing that.
“So I really try to start smooth and build up the cushion like we have right here and then and then work backwards from there.”
While Hamlin has two career Cup wins at Bristol, the most recent coming in 2019, no one knows exactly what to expect come Saturday night.
The 500-lap race will be the first for the Cup Series on the track’s concrete surface with the Next Gen car. The series’ first visit in the spring was held on dirt.
After the disappointment that was the race at Martinsville Speedway in the spring, no one wants a repeat performance at Bristol.
“I don’t even know yet whether we’re going to be shifting or not.,” said Hamlin, citing one of the reasons attributed to the lackluster Martinsville race. “That’s another aspect of this car we can’t really predict. I just think that we really need a multi-lane racetrack. This car performs best when it’s got options in the corners. It doesn’t really want to be running right behind somebody. It’s just too aero-dependent in that situation.
“So hopefully we have some a multi-groove Bristol, like we’ve had in years past. And if we do, then I think that the racing will be very good just like it has been at other ovals that we’ve had multiple groove tracks. So that’s really been the the magic formula for this car is that if we can go into a corner and have options, that allows us to stay close to the other cars.”