DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Pull over to give Tony Stewart a victory on a road course?
Denny Hamlin said his team would have laughed at the suggestion entering last Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway – because the driver of the No. 11 Toyota assuredly wouldn’t have that opportunity.
“I hate to call one of my crew guys out, but he even had a conversation with my girlfriend,” Hamlin said with a chuckle Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. “She says, ‘Hey are we going to get a win today?’ He says, ‘We might want to play the Lotto instead.’
“We hadn’t had the best luck on road courses. Statistically, it’s probably the worst average finish of any full-time Cup driver over the last six years. So (contending for the win) was out of the blue. I don’t know. I’m sort of happy with second. I’d love to play it over again and have the experience that I have now knowing what I maybe could have done. Because I’ve never really honestly broke down road-course racing to figure out the proper defensive move in the final corner of the final lap.”
Given that his average finishes of 20.8 at Sonoma and 20.7 at Watkins Glen International are his two worst in the Sprint Cup Series, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver can be forgiven for being less than proficient at executing on circuits that require left- and right-hand turns.
That’s why he apologized to his team for making the error that cost him his second victory of 2016.
But he isn’t saying sorry to fans who believe that he intentionally missed the final turn to hand the victory to Stewart.
“I didn’t let Tony win,” Hamlin said. “I made a mistake. I didn’t execute very good. Ultimately, I thought even though I made a mistake, we would maybe drag race to the line because we were in that center of the corner side by side, and I was thinking this could be good.
“But once I saw him steer left, I knew that was over with. He had an opportunity, he took it. If I’m in his situation, I probably do it the same. My biggest mistake was not recognizing the gap I had behind me.”
Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet trailed by about three car lengths entering the last turn, but Hamlin thought the gap was two.
“That’s the point where you can just run your own corner and maybe be OK,” he said. “But I knew he was going to throw caution to the wind, and I literally looked up and went to my same braking point, and I wheel-hopped again, and it’s not like it was an anomaly. I wheel-hopped the previous two laps in a row, that’s how I got beside him in the first place.
“So I just made a mistake being in a position I’d never been in before. Now I have the confidence that every road course I go to, I can win those races. … I just haven’t been that great on them. Always struggled for speed. It’s not been because of my cars. It’s been because of me. Now I feel like completing the cycle is possible. And I’ll get (the win) before my career’s over for sure.”