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.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.