A Daytona 500 victory brought career significance to Denny Hamlin, who scored the biggest win of his life in a record closest finish of NASCAR’s signature event.
But it also has brought an unexpectedly necessary measure of championship security, too.
With only four top 10s in 11 races, Hamlin ranks 13th in the points standings but is virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs via the Daytona victory that clinched a provisional berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Of the 16-driver field for the 10-race playoffs, only six spots have been secured through wins through the first 11 of 26 regular season races.
“I’d be nervous (without the win),” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said last week. “I think in the long run, essentially so many cars are in the Chase now, you have to just be mediocre and not terrible to make the Chase. I feel pretty confident that we can get there no matter what, but it is comforting knowing we got the win.
“I thought it would be more seamless. I came off Daytona, ran top five a few times with a chance to win and thought, ‘Oh this is going to be cake. We’re going to be a home run.’ ”
After Daytona, Hamlin led 10 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and finished third at Phoenix International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway. But he has only one top 10 (sixth at Richmond International Raceway) in the past six races.
“I think we’re starting to see some communication lapses,” he said. “We’re working on it, though. I think every week is getting better, but we’re still seeing these unknown situations pop up where we’re like, ‘What do we do?’ It’s just part of it.”
A 37th place finish in Saturday’s Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway was a microcosm of the turbulent start to Hamlin’s first season with crew chief Mike “Wheels” Wheeler, who moved into NASCAR’s premier series after four wins in the Xfinity Series last year.
Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota was clocked as too fast twice in the pits (bringing his series-high total to six speeding penalties in 2016). The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had rebounded to contend for a top five before crashing on an aggressive pass with 26 laps remaining.
He at least exhibited speed on the 1.5-mile oval, where he also qualified third Friday. His Camry hadn’t been keeping pace as well lately with teammates Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
“We definitely haven’t run as good” since Daytona, Hamlin said May 2 during an event for team sponsor Hisense. “We’re having growing pains right now for sure. I think a lot of it is Wheels’ new role (and) communicating with (spotter) Chris Lambert and myself.”
During a 31st at Talladega Superspeedway, Hamlin took the blame for “a communication glitch” that led to a pit miscue.
“I didn’t process the information I was getting from them,” he said. “I think it’s just new, and I’ve had a lot of issues on pit road this year.”
Hamlin also was caught for speeding entering the pits at Martinsville Speedway, and he finished 39th after “wheel-hopping” his car and crashing while pushing to regain spots.
“I’ve made some mistakes on races like Martinsville where I definitely feel like I could have won,” he said. “We’ve had some decent runs, but we haven’t been as strong as some of our teammates, but I think it’s coming. I feel like it’s just taking me and Wheels some time to get on the same page on some things. I’m confident.”
Hamlin, 35, has proclaimed Wheeler, a longtime engineer on his No. 11, as the last crew chief of his NASCAR career, and he reaffirmed his faith in the pairing while mulling his season on the trip home from Talladega.
“I was thinking, ‘This is just part of our process,’ and we’re going to look back on this probably a year from now and say, ‘Man, we weren’t very good at all (in) early ’16, but we got it together,’ ” he said. “So I’m pretty sure we’ll get it all figured out.
“The cool thing for us is we won the Daytona 500, and we have the entire summer to work out these kinks.”