While Hendrick Motorsports has made most of the NASCAR headlines in the last three weeks, Denny Hamlin has quietly put together an impressive stretch of races.
Hamlin drove his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to a second-place finish behind Kasey Kahne in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was the second consecutive runner-up finish for Hamlin in the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup points races.
More impressively, in his last five points races, the Virginia native has posted one victory at Kansas Speedway and four finishes of fourth or better. All in all, it’s been quite a run for Hamlin and his team in recent weeks.
Sunday night at Charlotte, Hamlin gambled late in the race by not taking tires, which he hoped would allow him to fend off Kahne, but it was not to be.
“When we didn't take tires, we stayed out right there, Kasey got around us with tires,” said Hamlin. “I knew I had to stay close to him, then try to short pit to minimize the distance for the last run. But ultimately we were going to short pit them, but they short pitted us. The first 10 laps of the last run, we got to them, but we wore our front tires trying to get around them.”
While Hamlin had an impressive run, at the end of the race, he knew he would not be able to run down Kahne.
“When we got about 15 (laps) to go, I told the guys I gave it all I had,” Hamlin said. “I knew I wore the front tires out trying to get to him. You try to do the best with tire management that you have.
“Our only shot, because we had gone really tight at the end of every run, was to just use it all up at the beginning, try to get around him, then hold him off with track position at the end.”
Still, it was another strong performance for Hamlin. Through one-third of the NASCAR season, Hamlin is one of only three drivers with multiple race victories. He also has six top-five and eight top-10 finishes, and is ranked third in points. Without question, he’s had an excellent first season with new crew chief Darian Grubb, who last year won a championship with Tony Stewart.
This week should provide an even better barometer for where Hamlin and Grubb are. On Sunday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will race at Dover International Speedway, historically Hamlin’s weakest track. If he posts a great finish this time, it might be a warning shot to the rest of the Cup field that he’s back in championship form.
“Dover — I still haven't figured out what it takes to go fast there. I've not had very good success at that race track since I've really been in the Cup Series,” said Hamlin. “I've had a couple of second and third-place runs, but haven't really been that competitive at Dover.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.