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.