Maybe Denny Hamlin was over-prepared.
He put hour after hour into video study getting ready for Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway, a track he considers his worst venue. He conquered his concerns about the weekend, winning the pole for the AAA 400.
He led 39 laps, ran second much of the rest of the way and clearly had one of the day’s top three cars.
He finished eighth.
Not a bad day by most measures, but, considering everything Hamlin had put into the weekend, it was like a kick in the gut.
That explained his disappointment after the race and the fact that he stood by his car and simply looked at it for several minutes while Brad Keselowski celebrated the win in victory lane.
Fuel mileage had whacked Hamlin again.
"It's so frustrating,” Hamlin said. “It's like all the hard work that you do – it just doesn't pay off. Same thing at Richmond, we just didn't have the fuel mileage. We choose to have the horsepower over the fuel mileage, and some guys don't tune that way.
“When you have a race-winning car, you don't want to give up any of the horsepower. It's frustrating. They're not going to beat us on the track. That's just plain and simple. We're just too fast right now, and I feel like everything is going well.”
Still, the approach to late-race strategy is handled differently up and down pit row, and that bit Hamlin Sunday.
“These strategy games and the way these cautions are falling, it's ill-timed,” he said. “These cautions fly when some people can and some people can't make it. It's messing everything up. We need to improve our fuel mileage. We know that, and we'll work on that as much as anything. For me, I'm not too discouraged because we ran our ass off today.
“This fuel mileage game sucks. All the hard work that you put in – drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps and then it's like you look up and wonder why we're eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it's just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling race car. I'll take good-handling race cars and good horsepower any day. Right now, between Richmond and here, it's costing us a lot of spots. Still, top-10 day on a race track like this and to battle for the win all day – I'm not going to complain."
Fuel-mileage issues also bit Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. He led 302 laps but had to pit for fuel late and finished seventh. On his team radio, he had a not-very-subtle message for Toyota Racing Development, and most of it is not printable.
Despite a tough day, Hamlin sits third in Chase points, 16 out of the lead, now held by Brad Keselowski. The Chase moves on to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for Race Four.
"Next week is an absolute crap shoot, but it's going to be for everyone,” Hamlin said. “We have to know who we're racing. We have to make smart decisions and keep all the fenders on it. Typically, most superspeedways I'm right in it until the very end and get caught up in a wreck. My job next week is to make sure to concentrate on that weekend, not look forward and focus on getting the most points possible."
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.