Denny Hamlin’s Latest Failed Title Run Is His Most Frustrating Yet
Time is running out on Denny Hamlin’s bid to remedy the most significant blemish on his career. In fact, the NASCAR Cup Series championship grain of sand may have already slipped through the hourglass.
He’s had heartbreaking finishes to title pursuits before, including repeated misfires in the Championship 4, but the circumstances surrounding this miss qualify it as the most frustrating of all. Hamlin did his part in nine playoff races, but his opportunity to make Phoenix meaningful next weekend died in his Martinsville pit stall.
Denny Hamlin was making a solid Cup Series playoff run
Ross Chastain’s maniacal last-lap push to outpoint Denny Hamlin for the final berth in the Championship 4 was a bitter setback, almost to the point of being unfair to the most famous FedEx driver in the world.
Hamlin entered the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as the sixth seed and was navigating the playoffs smoothly. Throw out 13th place at the Charlotte Roval, which was a transfer race, and Hamlin finished in the top 10 in each playoff race, beginning with consecutive runner-up showings at Darlington and Kansas.
Unfortunately, showings of fifth, seventh, and fifth in the third phase – combined with Chastain’s mind-boggling final lap – left the No. 11 Toyota team just short of going to Phoenix with a chance to win that elusive championship.
Instead, he’ll watch Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell, 14 years his junior, compete in the Championship 4 by virtue of Sunday’s victory. He’ll battle Chastain, Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano for the title.
Multiple issues doomed Denny Hamlin before Martinsville
Numbers like laps led or average finish don’t tell the true story about Denny Hamlin’s 2022 season. If anything, the law of averages (and the Next Gen car) finally caught up with him. After making it to the finish in 106 of 108 races from 2019-21, Hamlin heads to Phoenix with five DNFs this season, including crashes in both Daytona races.
All the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas struggled early, and Hamlin’s win at Richmond was the only time he finished better than 13th until Kansas, which was the midpoint of the regular season. Additionally, road courses mystified the JGR team right up until Christopher Bell’s clutch playoff win on the Charlotte Roval.
Last but not least, there was the disqualification at Pocono after winning the race. The five playoff points ended up in Chase Elliott’s pocket instead of Hamlin’s; the drama of the last 30 laps on Sunday between Hamlin and Chastain could just as easily have been between Hamlin and Elliott. The fault at Pocono lies with the team, not the driver.
And with 203 laps led compared to Elliott’s 54, Hamlin could have had the No. 9 Chevy on the ropes Sunday. Given that neither Elliott, the regular-season champion, nor automatic Championship 4 qualifier Joey Logano have overwhelmed in 2022, Hamlin would have had a legitimate chance to finally do better than a pair of thirds and a pair of fourths in Championship 4s since 2014.
Pit stops were the final straw on Sunday
Denny Hamlin got done in by his own crew. Pit performance has been an issue across all the Toyotas for most of the season. JGR does all the training and assignments, so Hamlin has only his boss to fault for that issue.
Austin Dillon’s brake failure on Lap 319 brought the Martinsville field in under the yellow. Hamlin was in first when he entered his pit stall and fourth when he left. When JJ Yeley brought out the caution on Lap 394, Hamlin came out two spots back of where he came in.
The real disaster came on a 14.5-second pit stop with 30 laps to go after Landon Cassill’s wrecked. Hamlin left with four fresh tires, but he also left in 12th place. Not only was Hamlin not going to win, but he was going to have to chase down Chastain.
“They took us out of control of the race; clearly we were dominant,” crew chief Chris Gabehart said of the slow stops, according to Jayski.com. “I think we gave up four spots the first one, (two) the next one and another five the last one. It’s just too many. But that’s the theme. We’ve been that way all year long. We’ve given up spots all year on pit road. And today it was just too many.”
Said Hamlin: “I cannot thank (the team) enough for giving me a race-winning car, but you’ve got 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.”
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