Denny Hamlin had every chance to bemoan missing out on another victory at Martinsville Speedway when he faced the media afterward. After leading 276 of 500 laps, Hamlin was asked if he had hope of holding off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr., if he was concerned about his lack of playoff points, if he was frustrated to lead so many laps and not win, and more.
Each time, Hamlin focused on what has been going right for his No. 11 team. He even leaned on the phrase “it’s hard to complain” at one point, highlighting how he’s performed through the first eight races.
Sure, Hamlin is winless and has just three playoff points courtesy of three stage wins. But he’s been leading the overall point standings since the Daytona road course, while his team has built him fast race cars and everyone has been putting together clean races.
“There’s just nothing I could have done differently (Sunday),” Hamlin said. “I feel like I executed well on pit road. Obviously, we were the only car that could take the lead on the restart on the outside multiple times. Sometimes the cards are dealt to you where you got a short run car, and at the end of the race comes down to a 40-lap run. That’s just outside your window of greatness.
“It’s just been amazing the execution that our team has had over the first eight races. Short of a pit road penalty I had on the last pit stop at Homestead, we finished top three every single week. It’s hard to be disappointed with that. We’re executing phenomenal. We just haven’t had that dominant car that we’ve had a few times last year that we just beat up on everyone. We just haven’t had that car yet. We’ve just been next-best.”
Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart are rolling right along. The success the two have had since being paired together in 2019 has been well documented, and after another championship-contending season in 2020, they have picked up right where they left off. Hamlin has led 487 laps through eight races, including at least one lap in seven of the eight races, and has a series-leading average finish of 4.5.
A speeding penalty at Homestead is the sole blemish. Hamlin was likely headed to a top-five finish before his final pit stop relegated him to 11th place – his worse finish this year.
As for the playoff points, there is no denying their value. You can never enough bonus points – just ask Kevin Harvick after his elimination in the penultimate race of the 2020 season despite the incredible amount he bagged through the year. Except, and maybe it’s a surprise to some, there are no worries in the Hamlin/Gabehart camp.
The 2021 win column is still empty, but Hamlin and the No.11 team are very much at ease with how their season is playing out. Motorsport Images
“We definitely would like to have more, for sure,” said Hamlin, “but the way we’re running, we can win any given week.”
Gabehart has more methodical reasoning.
“If you extrapolate it out right now and you reset the points, the 11 (Hamlin) would have 18, and the 19 (Truex) would have 21,” Gabehart said Tuesday afternoon. “We’d be three behind. So, you’ve got to think big picture in our roles. Right now, we have a one-plus race advantage on the point lead, and it’s still early in the regular season, but that’s a nice advantage. And again, I go back to, we’re in the conversation of winning these races each and every week, and when I look at the tracks coming up for us, Richmond, Talladega, Kansas, Darlington, I don’t see that going away anytime soon. We’re more than capable at all of those races at contending for wins.
“The biggest goal I had going into this season for us was, don’t beat ourselves. I really think over the last two years, a lot of times, the 11 has been its biggest opponent, and we have done an excellent job this year of that not being the case. We’ve been having clean races, and the one race we didn’t have a clean race, we were going to run top five at Homestead as well and had a speeding penalty late in the going – we beat ourselves and ran 11th. So as long as we keep meeting that goal week in and week out, we’re going to be just fine. I’m not worried about playoff points; they’ll come.”
So too will the wins, especially when you’re on a streak of finishing third or fourth every weekend. Or, in Hamlin’s case, the last five races. And Hamlin has multiple wins at each of the next four tracks on the schedule.
“Every weekend for the last several, we’ve been in the conversation for winning these races late in the going, and on Mondays and Tuesdays, we’re talking about the 11 was close,” said Gabehart. “Well, from a macro perspective, if you’re there every weekend, you’re going to get your share of wins, and fortunately, right now, we’re clicking on all eight (cylinders) and doing just that.”
It would be easy for Hamlin or anyone with a vested interest in his team to pick at something negative like not having a win. Aside from that empty column though, everything else is solid and going right for the group early in the season, and it seems a safe bet their long-game mindset will only lead to better things.