Albeit winless, Denny Hamlin is wired for a deep playoff run

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Denny Hamlin, without a single victory to his name in 2021, appears a more viable contender for the NASCAR Cup Series championship this year than he did in 2020, a season in which he collected seven wins.

But while he is winless, he isn’t aimless. He ranks second in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result in an attempt to isolate his contribution, with a 3.405 rating, his third consecutive season in the elite 3.000+ bracket. It’s thanks to a manner of consistency, predominately at the start of the season, that yielded a points lead large enough to withstand a four-win onslaught from Kyle Larson.

That early stretch of the season, from which Hamlin collected 50 or more points from five of nine races, included five 750-horsepower tracks and Daytona, facilities falling into the respective wheelhouses of Joe Gibbs Racing and the three-time Daytona 500 winner.

Three of JGR’s four entries rank inside the top eight for average median lap time at 750-horsepower tracks; Hamlin, ranked third, is the current bellwether. The skew in speed is a shift over last year’s effort; ranked seventh in 750-horsepower speed, Hamlin was the slowest among the Championship 4, both for the season and in Phoenix’s title race specifically. He ranked faster on 550-horsepower tracks, earning six of his seven wins at facilities utilizing a rules package that didn’t factor into the most important race of the year.

It was a fact not lost on Hamlin, who acknowledged the deficit immediately after the race.

“Our organization hasn’t been very good on the short tracks this year,” he said. “It’s kind of a learning period for us, but we put our best effort forward. We made no mistakes today. I did everything I possibly could. I had nothing there … Our car didn’t have enough speed to go up there and compete.”

While JGR’s organizational pivot has already benefited Martin Truex Jr. in the wins column, it’s unearthed a form from Hamlin we never truly saw in 2020. Though winless, the No. 11 team’s ability to dominate in the fashion they did at both Martinsville (where they led over 55% of the race) and Richmond (over 51% of the race led) represents a step forward, one with relevance given the representation of both tracks on the playoff schedule. Hamlin will enter this season’s final 10-race run with perhaps a higher ceiling atop an already high floor.

That high floor, though, has a distinct style. Hamlin’s ability to score track position leans favorably in the direction of restarts and short runs — he ranks first among full-time drivers in non-preferred groove position retention — while his surplus passing, affected by long runs, is the team’s most recognizable and consistent foible, visible in their track position spider chart:

Despite having a positive adjusted pass differential for the season (+62), it’s a tally that should be greater (around +103), based on statistical expectation. Hamlin ranks in the 16th percentile for surplus passing, measuring the ability to make more passes than what’s expected, well beneath the likes of Chase Elliott (99th percentile), Larson (97th) and Kyle Busch (88th), all with nearby average running positions.

It’s a weakness, though, only in inopportune times, of which there have been many this season. His PEER splits skew toward races with at least one late restart (he ranks third in the series) but these scenarios have occurred just six times all season. Similarly, his PEER split ranks second in races with higher-than-average caution volume — which create a greater number of restarts — compared to a fourth-place ranking in races with low or average caution volumes. There have been only seven races with a caution volume greater than two per 100 miles, the series average.

When races break towards his strength and quantifiable style, he produces better results; however the number of races this season accentuating what he does well is slim. That’s an observation likely key in understanding why he’s yet to win, at all or at a clip commensurate with his production ability.

The lack of wins and playoff points provided by wins is arguably the only thing that takes away from Hamlin’s championship candidacy. Aside from that, he’s better positioned for this year’s playoffs, which maintains last season’s slate of tracks.

Omitting Talladega, he averaged 47.83 points per race at playoff tracks earlier this year, slightly better than Truex’s average (47.5) and over eight points better than the third-best rate (William Byron’s 39.17). It’s an average over 17 points better than what he earned on non-drafting playoff tracks in the regular season last year (30.38), a rate that ranked as just the seventh highest among all drivers.

He’s uniquely suited for playoff races where restarts are both abundant and deciding factors. For one, his pit crew ranked as the second fastest, based on median four-tire box time, through the first half of the season. More importantly, he executed well on restarts at playoff tracks earlier this year, his 79.59% retention rate ranked second overall, trailing only Brad Keselowski’s 81.82% rate. It seems he’s the playoffs’ biggest short-run threat. Certainly, a 10-race slate that caters to his strengths will prove difficult for all other competitors.

A hint of what may come in the playoffs could be on display this weekend in New Hampshire, a flat 1-mile track that utilizes the 750-horsepower package and blends stylistically with both Martinsville and Richmond.

Hamlin is a three-time winner there, but finished second last year to Keselowski in what served as the latter’s springboard to a stretch run of dominance on 750-horsepower tracks, which included a win at Richmond, a pronounced final run at Martinsville and a second-place finish at Phoenix on a day when he had the fastest car.

A win this Sunday could alleviate problems drummed up by having never won, but in reality, a concrete performance — on a track containing high caution volumes in each of its last two events — would go a long way in helping us determine the validity of Hamlin’s title bid.

But if his stellar returns from the early part of 2021 are any indication, he’s a serious championship threat hiding in plain sight, one that’s righted a lot of the wrongs that hindered a more outward, albeit flawed playoff march last season.

Corey LaJoie learning in his week with Chase Elliott’s team

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Spending this week with Hendrick Motorsports has proved eye-opening for Corey LaJoie.

He will pilot Chase Elliott’s No. 9 car today at World Wide Technology Raceway after NASCAR suspended Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin during last week’s Coca-Cola 600. This gives LaJoie the chance to drive in the best equipment of his career.

MORE: Corey LaJoie not giving up on his dream 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race

Working with Elliott’s team also has given LaJoie an inside look as to what makes Hendrick Motorsports so successful.

“I thought that I knew what we didn’t have at Spire Motorsports, but I had no idea,” said LaJoie, who starts 30th after tagging the wall during his qualifying lap. “There’s tools that those guys have, intellectual properties specific to Hendrick Motorsports, that even some of the other teams don’t have.

“But the biggest thing that I noticed was just the people and the attitude of the pursuit of perfection. All the key partner teams across all the (manufacturers) all have the same data, but (Hendrick Motorsports has) an unbelievable way of delegating, taking, compacting and making it just digestible – whether it’s for a driver, an engineer, a crew chief.

“I think the fact that they have four incredibly strong teams individually raises the tide for those guys because when you’re sitting in the simulator and William Byron ran a 33.20 (seconds for a lap) … if you’re running a 33.35 with the same setup, you know you have a tenth-and-a-half under your butt and you have to go find it. And then when I go run a 33.20, William next time is going to want to run a 33.19.

“There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the driver’s end. There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the crew chiefs in trying to build the best setups, and the engineers trying to find the best strategies.

“The inner-team competition is one of the biggest things, and I think there are several teams that have that … the healthy ones are certainly evident. But it’s just the overall structure. We have a Hawkeye (camera-based inspection stations used by NASCAR at the track) … all the things that do the same stuff that Hendrick Motorsports has, but the depth of people, collective focus of the goal and the mission is noticeable and evident. It’s a different world.”

It would be easy for LaJoie to be overwhelmed in this situation. His career has been marked with underfunded rides and trying to make the most of his equipment. He’s having his best season in Cup this year. LaJoie ranks 19th in points heading into today’s race.

LaJoie acknowledges the opportunity he has, but he also can’t let it alter his focus.

“It’s been a wild week,” he said. “I can get all sentimental … (about) my dad subbing in for Ricky Craven in 1998 (for Hendrick Motorsports) and all that sort of stuff. But at the end of the day, when I sit in that thing, I don’t know that NAPA is on it, or the No. 9 is on it.

“I’m going to drive it like I have been driving the No. 7 Chevy and putting that thing 19th in points. It’s been a super fun, successful year so far, and we have a lot of work left to do and things to accomplish over there.”

When he returns to his Spire Motorsports ride after today’s race, LaJoie admits this weekend’s experience with Elliott’s team will help him with his own team.

“How I prepare, how I’m going to engage with my team at Spire Motorsports going forward is going to change,” LaJoie said. “I think I’m going to be able to come in there and just apply and share some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the week with (crew chief Ryan) Sparks and the No. 77 team, as well, and I think we’re all going to be stronger for it.”

Dr. Diandra: Is 2023 the season for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. redemption?

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Coming into 2022, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had two career Cup Series wins in 364 starts. But both wins — and his career-high 13th-place season finish — happened back in 2017.

Stenhouse was unceremoniously dropped by Roush Fenway Racing in 2020 and landed with JTG Daugherty Racing. He made the news every now and then at a superspeedway but could be counted upon to head up season-ending lists of drivers involved in the most accidents. In the years Stenhouse hasn’t been at the top of the list, he’s been near the top.

DNFs and accidents have plagued Stenhouse throughout his NASCAR career. Jack Roush went so far as to park the Mississippi native in his early days in the Xfinity Series because he tore up so much equipment.

Stenhouse redeemed himself, going on to win two Xfinity championships.

From the way his 2023 season has started, it looks as though Stenhouse might be on a similar mission of redemption this year in the Cup Series.

Finishing races

Stenhouse started the 2023 season in the best possible way – winning the Daytona 500. But drivers from less-funded teams who win early superspeedway races usually settle to the bottom of the rankings by now.

Stenhouse hasn’t. He ranks 13th heading into Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Standings aren’t as good a ruler this year as they usually are because of drivers missing races and teams incurring penalties. But Stenhouse’s statistics back up his ranking.

Stenhouse has finished every race this year on track, as opposed to in the garage or on the hook. Only Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie have achieved the same distinction.

In 11 of those 14 races, Stenhouse finished on the lead lap. That’s the same number of lead-lap finishes as William Byron. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for most races finished on the lead lap with 13 each.

This time last year, Stenhouse had already racked up seven of the series-leading 18 caution-causing incidents he would be involved in for the season. Runner-up Chase Elliott had 15 incidents.

Going into Gateway this year, Stenhouse has been involved in only two accidents (Talladega and Charlotte) and had a tire go out at Darlington.

Approaching his career best

I compare three years in Stenhouse’s career in the table below: the 2017 season — his best to date — along with last year and the 14 races run so far this year.

A table comparing loop data stats for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showing his path to redemption

Stenhouse’s current average finishing position of 13.5 ties with Christopher Bell for sixth best in the Cup Series. That’s 9.3 positions better than Stenhouse’s 2022 average. He’s even beating his 2017 average by 3.6 positions.

Qualifying results are down a bit from 2017 — but remember that those numbers are from the days when NASCAR allowed multiple practice sessions. Stenhouse is only two positions worse relative to 2017, but 7.6 positions better than last year when it comes to establishing his spot on the starting grid.

Stenhouse’s average running position is comparable to 2017 and 2.8 positions better than 2022. He ranks 20th among full-time Cup Series drivers in average running position. Although it’s an improvement, it’s still more than double William Byron’s series-leading 9.1 average running position this year.

More interesting is the difference between Stenhouse’s average running position his average finishing position. Some drivers run better than they finish. Stenhouse is doing the opposite.

In 2017, Stenhouse finished about 1.4 positions better than he ran. This year, he’s gaining an average of about five positions from where he runs.

One might argue this gain results from the plethora of late-race incidents this year that have removed drivers in the front of the field from contention. But Stenhouse deserves credit for putting himself in a position to benefit from those events.

Stenhouse’s green-flag speed rank is 11th among full-time Cup Series drivers. His 15.3 average, however, is 1.7 positions worse than 10th-place Kyle Busch. Still, it’s impressive that JTG Daugherty is right there in the mix with much better-funded teams. William Byron again has the best average green-flag speed rank at 7.9.

Consistently strong finishes

It’s not uncommon for a mid-pack driver to win a superspeedway race. But Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win appears to be something more. The table below summarizes his wins and finishes for the same three years.

A table comparing finishes for 2017, 2022 and 2023 showing Ricky Stenhouse Jr's redemption attemptsThe difference between last year and this year is striking.

In 2022, Stenhouse finished in the top 20 in 12 of 36 races. He’s already matched that mark this year. He earns top-20 finishes 85.7% of the time in 2023 compared to 33.3% last year. Top-20 finishes aren’t the same as contending for a championship. But they’re a first step.

Stenhouse finished 2017 with nine top-10 races. With about 60% of the season remaining, he’s already earned five top-10 finishes this year.

What’s changed? The Next Gen car is one factor, but it didn’t make much difference for Stenhouse last year. I would point instead to Stenhouse’s reunion with Mike Kelley as his crew chief.

Kelley co-piloted both of Stenhouse’s Xfinity championships in 2011 and ’12. Although Kelley worked with Stenhouse and previous crew chief Brian Pattie since 2020, this is the first year Kelley is back up on the pit box.

Together, they’re basically halfway to matching Stenhouse’s best year.

And another step closer to redemption.

Portland Xfinity race results, driver points

Portland Xfinity results
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images
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Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime

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Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).