DARLINGTON, S.C. — Denny Hamlin’s season of misfortune by the bushel with one great height continues. It’s been enough that his team’s approach has undergone some tinkering as the NASCAR Cup Series regular season nears its halfway point.
Hamlin enters Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) with highly uncharacteristic numbers on his stat sheet to date. He has a victory already — at Richmond — that has virtually clinched his spot in the Cup Series Playoffs, but that’s his only finish inside the top 10 through 11 races. Six finishes have been outside the top 20, a burdensome weight that’s left him 23rd in the standings and with a lackluster 22.5 average finish.
“It’s been frustrating. I mean, honestly, it’s just been, you know, week after week of being the coyote that gets the anvil dropped on its head,” Hamlin said Saturday at Darlington Raceway, nodding to the infamous Wile E. Coyote cartoon. “I mean, I don’t even know how else to explain it.”
Hamlin finished right near his 2022 average last week after a list of unforced errors at Dover Motor Speedway — one a pit-stop miscue that caused his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing to lose a wheel early on, and secondly a crash where he was unable to miss the spinning No. 51 of Cody Ware.
He continued on, avoiding what could have been his fifth DNF of the year.
“We’ve had things that just have broken. I’ve had more mechanical failures this year than I’ve ever had,” Hamlin said. “Again, you know, some of these parts that we don’t control and NASCAR is continuing to change them and develop them to make them better so we don’t have a lot of problems, but we’ve just been kind of the poster child of the ones that break things. And then last week, you know, what can I do? … The 51 spun there and I just didn’t, didn’t get around, run into him. It’s been unfortunate, but I can tell you it’s a lot different than running top 10 every week and trying to figure out how you’re going to get enough speed to win. That’s what I’d really be worried about.”
Almost prophetically, Hamlin had another breakage during Saturday’s Cup Series qualifying, with part of the underbody causing a grinding noise underneath his No. 11 Toyota. He had qualified 22nd, but will drop to the rear of the field for Sunday’s start.
His JGR teammates have fared better in their respective perches in the points, all ranking among the top 10 — Kyle Busch tied for third, Martin Truex Jr. seventh and Christopher Bell 10th.
“I mean, he’s been competitive, and he’s been right there with us every week,” Bell said of Hamlin. “So he’s made jokes about it, like you can’t stop the bleeding, right, because something always happens to him. Even last week at Dover, he had a car capable of winning the race and unfortunately had a pit-road mishap and then got caught up in a wreck. That was not his fault at all, so we don’t even really talk about it.”
Hamlin said his faith in his performance has been boosted by his season-best 67 laps led at Dover, but also his average running position — which he said stacks up favorably to Chase Elliott, the current points leader. But the current deficit has prompted the No. 11 team to shake up its goal, strategy-wise.
That shift means a focus on building up a bankroll of playoff points, and letting any other points fall where they may.
“We’ve given up on the regular-season points, and even getting in the top 10. I’m not even sure,” Hamlin said. “So for us, it’s actually simplified our strategy, we go for playoff points only. So when you see the field start splitting because they want stage points or whatever, you know where the 11 (team) stands from this point on. We’re trying to get five points at the end of the race and two for the Playoffs during stages. So it actually simplifies our strategy for the regular season.”