Denny Hamlin said he knew it would happen. He just didn’t know when.
A debris caution during a green-flag cycle proved key to Kurt Busch winning Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas and Hamlin finishing third despite leading a race-high 121 laps.
The caution on Lap 237 caught most of the playoff drivers a lap down, forcing them to wave around. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not made a pit stop.
Hamlin, who was leading, pitted on Lap 233. He came in a lap after Alex Bowman stopped. Bowman was running second to Hamlin before the stop.
“Our hand got forced by (Bowman) by him coming in early there,” Hamlin said of his team not wanting to have Bowman gain time with fresher tires. “We both had a lead over the field. I thought we could have run a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. We didn’t want to just to kind of give them the lead and count on running them down at the end of the race. You have to keep yourself in front of them.”
Instead of possibly celebrating a win and advancing to the next round, Hamlin left Vegas frustrated with his third-place showing.
“I just hate getting burned by the same thing, that’s it, that’s all I’m saying,” Hamlin said on the radio to crew chief Chris Gabehart after the race. “It’s the same thing I get burned on. I know we had no choice because (where) we were at.”
Gabehart responded to Hamlin on the radio: “The choice is I stay out another five or six laps and if the caution doesn’t come, we have no shot to win. I don’t know what I’d do different. The problem is there is no reason for the leaders to come early because you leave yourself vulnerable to that, but you can’t get all these goofballs to understand that. It’s what happens.”
Even after such a finish, Hamlin is 58 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round.
But that wasn’t enough to console Hamlin.
“I just hate missing out on victories,” he said of his playoff spot. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been so fast in so many races and not finish it like we feel like we should, but we’re up front. That’s what counts. That’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix, keep getting those wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix (for the title race) and hopefully you’’ll get a championship out of it. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Hamlin’s finish was his best in the playoffs and came after a first round that saw him score a stage win but not place higher than 12th.
Hamlin discounted the notion that putting together a new Cup team with Michael Jordan for next year and signing Bubba Wallace to drive for it had been a distraction earlier in the playoffs.
“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff, but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had bad breaks. Tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was, to be honest with you. Or Bristol. We led laps. We were, I thought, the best car.”
At Darlington, Hamlin missed pit road and had to go back around. Then a debris caution about 10 laps buried him outside the top 10 with less than 50 laps left. He finished 13th.
At Bristol, Hamlin started at the rear because his car failed inspection twice before the race. He ran fifth when he had contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. as Truex returned to the track after pitting. Hamlin finished 21st.