Cup Series

Fast, Furious and Fleeting

July 27

By Bob Pockrass

Denny Hamlin has five wins this year, and he has passed Kevin Harvick for the lead in the last two.

It should give him some swagger. And it does.

It should also give him some confidence with the playoffs about six weeks away and potentially, the championship, where Harvick is looking like his primary competition.

It should – but it really doesn’t.

“Not really ... because every track is so different,” Hamlin said Thursday night after his victory at Kansas Speedway. “Especially with the news of like no practice, it's like, ‘Oh, boy, this season is going to come down to really a big old crapshoot at the end.’

“Hopefully you got your car unloaded nicely. You don't feel like you're in a one‑up position, I guess you could say, by beating him.”

Momentum can be overrated in sports. And Hamlin is the ultimate his-resume-needs-a-championship guy.

His 42 wins are second all-time as far as those who won races but never a championship – Junior Johnson won 50 races without a title – and the most among current drivers without a championship. 

With the current NASCAR playoff system, he’s not sweating that. NASCAR uses a 16-driver field where it cuts four drivers after three three-race rounds to set up the championship race, where the driver who finishes best among the four drivers remaining wins the title.

Last year, his team made a mistake by putting too big a piece of tape on his grille near the end of the championship race, dooming his chances.

“There are a lot of things that can go on in that one race, one of which is a 30-square-inch piece of tape that wasn't put in the right spot,” Hamlin crew chief Chris Gabehart said. “That is no knock on Denny Hamlin's career whatsoever.” 

Gabehart agrees to a point with Hamlin that the wins right now mean trophies and playoff points, which can help advance a driver in the playoffs if the driver doesn’t win in the three-race round. It could also mean a little bit psychologically when it comes to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway in early November.

“The playoff points and their importance are undeniable,” Gabehart said. “Really it's about winning. It's about continuing to solidify in all of our minds that our process is working.

“The way we go about this is working. That type of consistent gratification and peace of mind is going to be invaluable going into the playoffs.” 

Hamlin and Gabehart have combined for 11 Cup wins since being paired together in 2019, after Hamlin went winless in 2018. Their confidence does grow with each win, but it also will remain if they get in a little bit of a slump, knowing they can win with maybe not even the best car.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver indicated he probably had a third-place car at Kansas, and yet he still outdueled Harvick and then outlasted past champions Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. to the finish line.

“I thought that we were in trouble,” Hamlin said. “Our car didn't have the all‑out speed that a couple cars did. Certainly, it looked like [Harvick’s] had a ton of speed.

“But to kind of outduel him at the end, it's gratifying. But it only lasts this week. It doesn't give me any false confidence going forward.”

That’s just the way the NASCAR system is. Much like the NFL, it’s a one-and-done championship format. Which means all these great days Hamlin has had in the first half of 2020 and now entering the second half, are great for the stat book, the wallet and the trophy case.

But when it comes down to the championship race in less than four months, Hamlin needs to first get there, and then he needs a day where he and his team must execute better than the three other finalists.

“Hopefully I win the last race of the season,” Hamlin said. “That's the goal. But there are no guarantees. 

“We're putting together a very, very solid season in many, many aspects. That to me is a great season. If we can somehow get to the final four, we have accomplished our goal. From that point on, the last 301 laps, whatever it is at Phoenix, we'll give it our best shot and see where we stack up.”

Xfinity: Jones Surprise

Brandon Jones went from seventh to the lead in the final two overtime laps to capture the Xfinity race at Texas, ending Austin Cindric’s quest to match Sam Ard’s record of winning four consecutive series races.

Cindric took the lead from Ryan Sieg on the restart but then Jones used the inside lane for a great surge. 

“It’s like the third or fourth time we’ve lost on a green-white-checker after being the leader at the line,” Cindric said. “There are a thousand different things you can do right and wrong and you’ve got to trust your gut and trust the car is going to stick.

“Overall, it just wasn’t in the cards for four in a row.”

Truck: Redemption Winners

Austin Hill and Matt Crafton won the Gander RV Truck Series races at Kansas, and both could breathe a little sigh of relief with the win.

Hill lost a race last month at Atlanta on a late restart. This time, he didn’t have to worry about a late restart and captured his first win of the season.

Crafton, the defending series champion who won the title last year without winning a race, snapped a 67-race winless streak that stretched back to 2017.

“I wasn’t worried,” Crafton said. “I knew this group of guys ... and we’ve got the speed again, so I wasn’t really worried about it.

“You just keep doing what you’re doing and at the end of the day, the wins will come.”

On The Air

Sunday
Cup Foxwoods 301 (New Hampshire), 3 p.m., NBCSN

Stat of Note

Brad Keselowski (second at Kansas) is the only driver to finish top-10 in every race on 1.5-mile tracks this year.

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They Said It

“I'm winning more with my mind now than I am with my talent. I just feel like I have to be smarter.” – Denny Hamlin


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