Denny Hamlin hasn’t officially punched his ticket for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with three races to go, but that appears to be a formality. Nevertheless, there is still room for plenty to go wrong for the veteran driver, beginning Sunday in Indianapolis.
Hamlin has held the points lead since the second week of the season, but he is about to start looking up in the standings at Kyle Larson if action on the Indy road course plays out as expected.
That may explain criticism that Hamlin leveled at NASCAR.
NASCAR returns to the road course this week
Fresh off a weekend at Watkins Glen, a storied road course, the NASCAR Cup Series moves to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Whereas races there the past 27 years were on the oval, this one will be the sixth road course event of the season, triple what typical NASCAR schedules of the past have been.
It’s a different kind of racing for Hamlin, Larson, and the rest of the NASCAR competitors, but arguably a necessary change in Indy’s case. The huge crowds of the early years have dwindled, and 50,000 fans in the cavernous complex gives IMS the feel of a Double-A baseball game between cellar-dwelling teams.
Racing observers regard 2008 as the turning point. That was the year that Goodyear was unable to deliver a tire that could stand up to the stress of the Car of Tomorrow on the track’s pavement. Multiple tire failures led to accident cautions with scheduled competition cautions thrown in. Coupled with the difficulty that drivers had passing on the huge track, it was enough to kill fan enthusiasm.
After putting the IMS road course to the test a year ago with its Xfinity Series cars, NASCAR executives decided to make Indy one of seven road courses on the 2021 schedule.
Danny Hamlin fires a warning shot at NASCAR
Hamlin came into the NASCAR Cup Series season with misgivings about adding so many road courses, and those feelings have not changed. A week after opening the season with the Daytona 500, NASCAR stayed in town for a race on the road course.
Hamlin’s third-place showing there gave him the early points lead for the season, but you could practically hear him rolling his eyes when asked about how he felt about so many road courses on the schedule.
“More road courses for sure,” Hamlin said, quoting his own tweet from earlier.
A reporter asked if that was sarcasm.
“I don’t know. Is it?” he said, smiling. “More. More of everything.”
For the record, yes, it was sarcasm. Hamlin regards NASCAR’s concerted effort to get away from its usual number of ovals to visit venues like Circuit of the Americas and Road America as gimmicky and overkill.
“We can’t just keep adding road courses and just keep adding road courses,” Hamlin told Autoweek, “because everything is cool the first time, but what about the second time? We might have a good crowd (this) weekend for the road course, but we’re going to go back to wondering where everyone is at come Year 2.”
Hamlin has never distinguished himself in road races
Hamlin seems resigned to the fact that at least some of the additional road courses are here to stay, but he pitched an idea for a compromise in Indianapolis.
“Maybe we can alternate or something,” he said. “But I certainly think the Brickyard is special and Indianapolis is special because of the oval, not because of the road course.”
The two-time NASCAR Cup Series runner-up might have an ulterior motive. Hamlin is competitive on road courses but hardly dominating. His only career victory off the ovals was at Watkins Glen in 2016. His best showings on road courses this season have been third place at Daytona and fifths at Road America and Watkins Glen.
Meanwhile, Larson, the man he’s batting for the regular-season points championship, has won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen and run second at the Circuit of the Americas.
Also, Chase Elliott, the 2020 series champ and the man Hamlin likely expected to have to overcome this year, excels in road races. Elliott has posted seven of his 13 career victories, including Circuit of the Americas and Road America this summer, on the roads.
A cynic might suggest that’s motive enough for Hamlin to want to race on more ovals and fewer road courses.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.