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Leave it to Denny Hamlin to win a race stage and lose a crew chief in the span of five minutes. The season thus far has added to the suspicion that the only title he might ever win is that of “Most Successful Driver Never To Win The NASCAR Cup Series,” and the Dover disaster only added credence to the notion.

Victory aside, this has been a forgettable season for Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 2, 2022. | Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images
Denny Hamlin looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 2, 2022. | Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Denny Hamlin’s 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has been ugly from the moment an early crash took him out of the Daytona 500. Sure, he can point to the victory at Richmond. But with the way the season is playing out, with nine winners in just 11 races, there is the possibility that completing the regular season with only one win might not be enough to get him into the playoffs.

Other than Richmond, his season has been more of a body shop of work rather than a body of work. Hamlin forgot how to work the gear shifter at Las Vegas, relegating him to 32nd place. He wrecked two-thirds of the way through Atlanta, placing 29th. And his engine bit the dust in the Bristol dirt, landing him in 35th place.

Tack on uninspired results like 28th place at Martinsville and 21st in the rain-interrupted Dover race, and it adds up to 23rd place in points, behind the likes of unheralded Justin Haley and rookie Austin Cindric.

Denny Hamlin’s solid start at Dover turned into a disaster

The satisfaction of landing 10 points for winning the opening stage at Dover lasted only as long as it took for Denny Hamlin’s team to botch the ensuing pit stop. The veteran driver led 55 laps Sunday before the rain arrived. He came on strong again when action resumed Monday, and Hamlin took the checkered flag at the conclusion of the 120-lap opening stage.

Hamlin, never a Cup Series champion in 16 full-time seasons, pulled into the pits for fuel and tires. He left with a full tank of Sunoco and only three-quarters of the wheels. The crew didn’t get the left-front tire secured before the No. 11 Toyota exited the stall.

“A lug nut came out of the gun, and we did not know it until it was too late, obviously,” No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart told Hamlin over the radio, according to “It is what it is.”

What it is is four weeks of racing away from the team for Gabehart and two members of the pit crew. That’s the all-too-familiar penalty teams face for one of the bigger potential safety hazards in a race. The formal announcement will come during the week, but it’s a done deal.

The day got worse, and the season might, too

After starting 29th following the first stage break, Denny Hamlin actually fought his way back to fourth place. On Lap 243, however, Cody Ware lost control of his car coming out of a turn, tapped the outside wall, and slid toward the bottom of the track. Hamlin broke hard to the inside, but Ware clipped the No. 11 Toyota and spun Hamlin.

“I just can’t believe this, man,” Hamlin told his crew during the stage break shortly afterward.

Hamlin finished a lap down and in 21st place.

The loss of a crew chief hurts any driver, but a veteran like Hamlin can draw upon extensive experience to mitigate the inconvenience. However, his whole season has been a struggle with minimal suggestion that he can battle his way out of being the lowest-seeded winner in the playoffs. Transferring into the final 12 after the mid-September playoff race at Bristol would qualify as a success.

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