TALLADEGA, Ala. — With four regular season victories and his highest position (second place) in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings since April, Denny Hamlin said he comes to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) feeling as prepared and optimistic as possible.
Even a blown motor in Saturday afternoon’s qualifying did not derail Hamlin. To the contrary, he found the timing fortunate.
“We were 15 seconds from finishing dead last in the race so I’m very, very fortunate it happened there at the end of the lap,” Hamlin said. “It broke down the backstretch.
“Obviously, starting last will be tough, but we’ll be fine.”
That’s the kind of steady, can-do attitude that has Hamlin in enviable shape as he pursues his first Cup title. After 14 fulltime seasons in NASCAR’s premier league, Hamlin knows he’s overdue to claim the big trophy — and he’s raced that way this season.
The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has led more laps (594) than he has in five of the previous six seasons. With six races remaining on the calendar, he’s only one Top 10 shy of having 20 on the season for the fourth time in the last five years.
His four victories mark his top win-total since he won five races in 2012. And Hamlin is adamant he’s not done yet.
He is one of 11 former Talladega winners entered this weekend, taking the trophy in the Spring 2014 race. His best finish since is third in 2016. He was fourth in the October 2018 Playoff race and 36th this May after being collected in an accident.
While much of the talk coming into the race is about how teams and manufacturers will work together to most positively influence the outcome and their best Playoff opportunities, Hamlin dismissed any notion of that strategy on Friday.
So, when will he feel liberated to go for the win Sunday afternoon?
“Lap one,” Hamlin said. “I always have that mentality to do whatever I need to do for myself to get the best finish I can and that’s equaled good success.
“If you’re just kinda riding a line and willing to not make a move, you’re essentially conceding an opportunity to win the race. If you are eighth in line with the manufacturer, you’re essentially saying, ‘I’m just here to help the first seven in front of me.’ I don’t think many are willing to have that outcome. It looks good in practice, but in the race it’s really hard to execute.”
“You try to play the percentages and figure out where you need to be,” he continued. “You obviously want to be up front because the leader doesn’t wreck too many times, but second place does and on back. The odds increase with every different position that you’re in.
“You’ve just got to, as a driver, kind of analyze the situation and look around and see how anxious everyone is. Do you sense a wreck and if you sense it, it’s probably coming. That’s where you’ve really got to trust your instincts and put yourself in the best place possible. Sometimes that’s backing out and getting out of it and seeing how it plays out.”
Even with the challenges ahead in Sunday’s always frantic, high-stakes Playoff race, Hamlin has a matured, calm attitude.
“I’m just going to do the best job that I can do at that particular race and not worry about what anyone else is doing,” Hamlin said. “All I control is like the best finish for myself. I can’t be worried about strategy. That’s the crew chief’s job. I can’t worry about the car setup. That’s the crew chief’s job.
“The best I can do is drive it to the best of my ability, give the best information and let the results fall where they may. I’m confident if we can do that and we execute a decent race this weekend, our performance will be plenty next week.”
–by Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media