Long: Denny Hamlin’s knockout punch sends him to title race

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AVONDALE, Ariz. —Denny Hamlin punched the dash of his car in frustration nine years ago at ISM Raceway, the beginning of a collapse that cost him the Cup championship.

Sunday, he unleashed a flurry of punches after a win at the same track that lessens the pain of that miserable day in 2010 and could catapult him to his first series title.

Hamlin is changing the narrative of a Cup career in its 14th season that features two Daytona 500 victories but numerous playoff disappointments. It comes in Hamlin’s first year with crew chief Chris Gabehart.

Gabehart’s demands and Hamlin’s ease with pressure have Hamlin joining Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in next week’s championship race in Miami.

Hamlin is just the second Cup driver since the playoff format debuted in 2014 to race his way into the championship by winning the season’s next-to-last race. Harvick had to win at this track to make the 2014 title race and followed it the next week by winning the championship in Miami.

Two days before Sunday’s race, though, Hamlin sought to temper any disappointment should he fail to advance to the championship, saying: “It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not.”

Gabehart saw the comments and others like them and texted Hamlin.

The message was clear. Expect more of yourself.

“The biggest thing he always keeps pushing is that ‘We’re here to win, we’re not going to settle for anything other than winning,’ “ Hamlin said of Gabehart.

“I’m more of a ‘Let’s not get too high, let’s not get too low.’ I always like to put myself in the middle, to prepare myself both ways. I don’t think he does. I think he only prepares to win, and he’ll deal with it if he doesn’t.”

Gabehart has challenged Hamlin and helped him find areas he can be better, leading to six victories — the most since Hamlin won eight races in 2010 — and his first appearance in the title race since 2014.

“The biggest thing I see,” spotter Chris Lambert said of Gabehart’s influence on Hamlin, “is he holds Denny accountable for everything. It’s not just ‘Well we struggled on restarts or we had this issue. Why do we struggle? How can we fix it? We’ve got to fix it for you to be that elite driver that we know that you are.’ ”

Before the season, Gabehart went over race analytics, a deeper measure of racing statistics beyond results, with Hamlin and Lambert.

“It opened Denny’s eyes,” Lambert said.

Hamlin responded by winning the Daytona 500 to be the first driver to qualify for the playoffs.

But there have been challenges along the way, particularly in the playoffs. Hamlin’s mistake last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway led to a crash that put him 20 points behind Joey Logano for the final transfer spot.

Sunday, Hamlin struggled on restarts. He fell from first to fifth on the restart at the beginning of the second stage. Gabehart talked Hamlin through following restarts, telling him at one point to think of his strategy but don’t overthink things.

Overthinking his situation has been a fault associated with Hamlin since 2010. An ill carburetor forced Hamlin to make an extra pit stop late in that year’s race at ISM Raceway, costing him several positions and points. Instead of having a comfortable lead on Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick entering the season finale in Miami, Hamlin had a slight lead. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin in the press conference a few days before the title race, unsettling Hamlin. Hamlin then qualified poorly and spun in the race, losing to the title to Johnson.

Those two weeks have defined Hamlin to some.

“I’ve answered so many questions about that day (at ISM Raceway) and the role that it played in the finish of the 2010 season,” Hamlin said.

The questions may cease now.

In the midst of one of his best seasons, the Texas crash and pressure situation could have undone Hamlin. It would have years ago, but he’s become more comfortable as he’s aged — he tuns 39 the day after next week’s race.

This week, Hamlin shared a house with Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse and friends. Hamlin even admitted to playing tennis at 1 a.m.

“I think a lot of people sometimes think athletes need to be extremely focused, and not that we aren’t, but you’ve also got to balance that with some fun and come to Phoenix and getting to golf and go out and eat nice food is a good way to get your mind off all the pressure you have on Sunday,” Larson said.

While Hamlin was frustrated to see a multi-second lead disappear when NASCAR called a caution nine laps from the finish when John Hunter Nemechek hit the wall, he remained calm and handled the pressure well.

Gabehart kept Hamlin in the lead with what seemed a risky two-tire pit stop for a car that had been so dominant. Hamlin benefitted with Ryan Blaney also taking two tires to start beside him and ahead of Busch and Truex, who each were on four fresh tires.

Then it was up to Hamlin to win to advance. Hamlin followed Gabehart’s guidance, plotted his strategy and didn’t overthink it.

“I wanted to choose the top (lane on the restart) simply because I thought if I went into Turn 1 side‑by‑side, I’d rather be on the high side,” Hamlin said. “I thought that I’d seen Kyle get a pretty good run in the traction stuff on a few restarts. I saw it in a few restarts in the Truck race, as well.

“I just thought if I was going to be at a deficit of grip versus my competition, I had the option to go up there and get more. It was going to be a longer distance, but I had the option to go up there and get the grip they didn’t have.

“So I think that was the reason I did it. Luckily it all worked out, for sure. Especially I think having (Blaney) under there with two tires there, as well, gave me a little buffer there. If it was Kyle, I’m not sure I would have held him off, but I would have damn sure tried.”

He didn’t have to worry. Now, Hamlin is off to Miami to have fun and race for a championship.

“I’m going to enjoy the moment,” Hamlin said. “All you can ask for at the start of the year is to ask for an opportunity for a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete.  It’s goal accomplished. Now we just got to go out there and do it.”

Just as Gabehart would say.

Expect more of yourself.

Circuit of the Americas to host Cup for first time in 2021

R. Kevin Butts photo - Courtesy of COTA
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The Cup Series will do more road course racing in 2021 with the addition of the Circuit of the Americas to the schedule, the track announced Wednesday.

The Cup race will be held May 23.

The 3.41-mile road course in Austin, Texas, has hosted Formula One and IndyCar races, among others since its debut in 2012. The track also has a 2.2-mile, 15-turn short course. Announcements regarding race length, course selection and the full weekend schedule will be made at a later date.

MORE: Cup to run on Indy road course in 2021

A NASCAR event has never been held at Circuit of the Americas, but Tony Stewart piloted a Stewart-Haas Racing car there last year in a demonstration run.

COTA is located roughly 220 miles south of Texas Motor Speedway. Speedway Motorsports will be the event’s promoter.

“Our company is proud to have a 60-year history of fabulous firsts in motorsports entertainment, and we are honored to bring America’s premier racing series to one of the world’s most renowned entertainment venues and cities for the very first time,” said Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith in a statement. “I’d like to thank COTA CEO Bobby Epstein as well as NASCAR’s executive leadership for supporting us in an endeavor to do something that we believe will be spectacular for race fans, not only in Texas but around the world. We work and challenge ourselves every day at Speedway Motorsports to create amazing experiences that will last a lifetime, and we know NASCAR at COTA will deliver in 2021.” 

“I’m grateful for Marcus Smith’s vision and determination to make this event possible,” said Circuit of the Americas CEO and Chairman, Bobby Epstein in a statement. “His teams in Charlotte and at Texas Motor Speedway have created a spirit of partnership that will make for a spectacular weekend of fun and competition. Speedway Motorsports, along with the leadership at NASCAR, have a ‘Fans First’ attitude and have responded to everyone who has long desired to see a Cup Series race at COTA. Fans who’ve been here before will witness stock car racing at its finest for the first time, and first-time visitors will be amazed at the views and friendly experience. It will be our pleasure to write another chapter of motorsports history alongside Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR in 2021.” 

The complete 2021 schedule will be announced this afternoon by NASCAR.

Cup to run on Indy road course in 2021

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The NASCAR Cup Series will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2021 but will race on the road course for the first time instead of the oval, track officials announced Wednesday.

Cup will race on the road course on Aug. 15. That race will be held a day after the NTT IndyCar Series races on the Indy road course.

“Our first NASCAR-IndyCar weekend was a big success last July, with positive feedback from our loyal fans who watched the races on NBC and from the drivers, teams and participants involved,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said in a statement. “The Xfinity Series’ debut on the IMS road course provided exactly the kind of thrilling action from the green to checkered flags that we anticipated, so we know the teams and drivers of the Cup Series will put on a great show as they turn left and right for the first time at IMS.

“We can’t wait to welcome back fans to see NASCAR and IndyCar together during this exciting weekend as we add another memorable chapter in the long, storied history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

MORE: Atlanta to have two Cup dates in 2021

MORE: Darlington to run Cup races on Mother’s Day, Labor Day weekend in 2021

The Cup Series has raced at Indy since 1994. But as the racing there has been questioned and the sport has made a push for more road course races, NASCAR moved the Xfinity Series to the road course this year as a trial. The event was well received, creating the opportunity to move next year’s Cup race to the road course as well.

“Indy is Indy, no matter if you’re on the road course or you’re on the oval,” Joey Logano said of what a win there would mean. “It doesn’t matter. If you’re on the dirt track, I don’t care, it’s Indy. It’s that big deal to win there. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a Cup car, IndyCar or a tricycle, you want to win at that race track.”

Indy’s road course is 2.439 miles and features 14 turns. Chase Briscoe won the Xfinity race there after a four-car battle for the lead in the final laps.

The full Cup schedule will be announced Wednesday afternoon. The Xfinity schedule will be announced at a later date. Boles said on a media Zoom he was unsure of the Xfinity plans but talked with Logano about an interest Logano would have in running in a Xfinity race there to get more track time for the Cup race.

 

Darlington Raceway gets second Cup race for 2021

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Darlington Raceway will have two races in 2021, marking the first time since 2004 that the track has been scheduled to hold multiple Cup races in a season. The track announced its schedule Wednesday with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster at the Governor’s mansion.

“Congratulations. Thank you. Hallelujah,” Gov. McMaster said after the dates were announced.

Darlington was scheduled to host one race in 2020 but added two more in NASCAR’s return to racing after the season was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MORE: Atlanta to host two Cup races in 2021 for first time since 2010

The track will hold its first Cup race next season on May 9. That is Mother’s Day. It marks only the third time in the last 40 years the series will have run on Mother’s Day. The series last raced on Mother’s Day in 2007 when rain forced the Darlington race to be held that afternoon. The only other time NASCAR raced on Mother’s Day in the last 40 years was 1986 when the All-Star Race was held at Atlanta.

Darlington’s second date will be its Southern 500 event on Sept. 5, Labor Day weekend. That race will again open the  Cup playoffs.

NASCAR will announce the 2021 Cup schedule on Wednesday afternoon.

Darlington hosted two Cup races a season from 1960-2004. It held one Cup race from 2005-19.

The track stated that 2021 schedules for the NASCAR Xfinity and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be announced at a later date.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, tweeted that the Darlington races would be run with the low downforce package.

 

 

Atlanta to host two Cup races in 2021

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Atlanta Motor Speedway will host two Cup races in 2021, marking the first time since 2010 that the 1.5-mile speedway will have multiple Cup events in the same season.

Atlanta will host Cup races on March 21 and July 11.

The July 11 race will be the Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart, moving sponsorship that had been with Kentucky Speedway. Kentucky Speedway will not be on the 2021 schedule. Its date becomes the second Atlanta date. The March race will be known at the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

The July race marks the first 400-mile race at Atlanta since 1966.

The track announced its dates Wednesday morning. The full 2021 Cup schedule will be released Wednesday afternoon.

Atlanta Motor Speedway stated on its website that it plans to host fans in its stands and camping areas in socially distanced, limited capacity for each of its Cup races in 2021.

“We’re beyond excited to deliver what our fans have been yearning for: a second weekend of NASCAR action in Atlanta once again,” AMS Executive Vice President and General Manager Brandon Hutchison said in a statement. “Folds of Honor and QuikTrip continue to be phenomenal partners for our spring weekend of racing and we’re thrilled to have Quaker State and Walmart on board this summer as we put together two weekends of entertainment and excitement for race fans.”