Denny Hamlin came as close as any driver not currently in the Championship 4 to have a shot at the title Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, which is remarkable given the pedestrian season he has produced in total.
Hamlin had a two-point advantage on Ross Chastain in the final laps last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway before Chastain made an incredible move to accelerate into the Turn 3 wall and ride it around to the finish line on the white-flag lap. Chastain moved from 10th to fifth. Hamlin finished sixth and fell out of championship contention by four points after he had led a race-high 203 laps.
Both drivers moved up a position in the official results after NASCAR disqualified fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski because his No. 6 car did not meet minimum weight requirements in postrace technical inspection. But that didn’t change the NASCAR Playoffs standings.
Denny Hamlin had a terrible start to the 2022 season
Hamlin was eliminated from the Championship 4 for the first time since 2018, but the fact that he was even close is somewhat remarkable after a brutal start to his 2022 campaign.
He wrecked out of the season-opening Daytona 500 after only 63 laps and finished 37th in the 40-car field. He did not even register a top-10 finish until the seventh race of the season when he won at Richmond Raceway on a pit strategy call that gave his No. 11 car fresher tires on the final run.
Hamlin was 20th or lower in the points standings all the way until Memorial Day weekend when he won his first pole award of the season for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and then won the race in overtime.
A fourth-place run the week prior at Kansas Speedway was the only other top-10 Hamlin produced through the first 16 races of the season, and he sat behind drivers such as Erik Jones and Michael McDowell in the points standings. However, his playoff spot was assured because of his two wins.
Hamlin picked up a little momentum with four top-10s, including two top-fives, in the final 10 races of the regular season. He would have been 15th in the traditional points standings after the regular-season finale at Daytona but started the playoffs tied for sixth thanks to 13 playoff points that included two wins.
He would have been five points higher still if NASCAR had not disqualified his win at Pocono Raceway. The five playoff points that would have come with that win also would have covered the four-point margin by which he missed the Championship 4.
Hamlin’s performance picked up dramatically in the NASCAR Playoffs, but he couldn’t overcome regular-season struggles
The playoffs were a much better story for Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team. He opened the Round of 16 with a pair of second-place results and finished outside the top 10 only once through the first nine postseason events.
The elimination playoff has Hamlin outside of the Championship 4 as the series heads to Phoenix, but it is also the only reason he was in contention in the first place. Hamlin still sits only ninth in the traditional points standings after Martinsville.
His season totals will end up as his worst since at least 2018, when he went winless on the season and finished 11th in the playoff standings, his worst result since NASCAR instituted the elimination format in 2014.
Hamlin’s 10 top-fives would match his 2018 total. He could tally his 16th top-10 of the year Sunday at Phoenix, but that would still be his fewest since 2013, when he had eight but also missed four races that year because of a back injury.
His 12.9 average starting spot is his lowest since 2014, and his 15.7 average finishing position is his lowest since he posted a 21.0 mark in 2013.
All Cup Series teams had to learn the brand new Next Gen car model this season, which is likely part of what created the parity throughout the field and led to 19 different winners throughout the first 35 races.
The No. 11 pit crew also had uneven stops and cost Hamlin 10 spots combined on the three final stops in the race at Martinsville.
“You just can’t do that in this sport,” Hamlin said after the race. “You have to have all facets buttoned up and ready to go. The team gave me a great car. I could not thank them enough for giving me a race-winning car, but you have to have all the pieces of the puzzle together, and the one thing that hurt us this year and kept us from having five, six wins in the regular season is the same thing that bit us today. That’s our fault.”
Hamlin and his team had done a remarkable job through the playoffs to nearly reach the Championship 4, but their overall season was not enough to warrant a shot at what would have been his elusive first title.
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