LAS VEGAS — When the Cup playoffs began, one of the key questions was if Denny Hamlin’s inability to win a race in the regular season would hurt his chances to advance because he had so few playoff points.
“We don’t have that buffer we wish we had,” Hamlin said before the playoff opener at Darlington Raceway. “But we feel good enough on performance. It doesn’t matter how many playoff points, if you beat yourself, you’re out. Or if you don’t perform well early in the playoffs.”
After going winless in the first 26 races, Hamlin has won two of the first four playoff races. His victory Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway makes him the first driver to advance to the Round of 8, putting him a step closer to a third consecutive championship race appearance.
He’s following a path he discussed before the playoffs. Asked about a way to make the title race without winning, Hamlin said: “We never say we’re going to consistently make it through. We go thinking how can we win and punch our ticket.”
Hamlin entered the postseason with 15 playoff points. He’s doubled that total in four races with two victories and five stage wins. Only Kyle Larson has more playoff points (60) than Hamlin.
“Certainly, our team’s been really capable all year long,” crew chief Chris Gabehart said. “Every metric other than the win column has been astounding for our team. It’s really been our best year together thus far. You stay up front as much as we have, the wins are going to finally come. They’re coming at the right time.”
Hamlin’s victory Sunday marked his first top-three finish this season in a race with the 550-horsepower package. Hendrick Motorsports has been the dominant team on those tracks. That was the case Sunday. Until a pit call derailed the HMS cars.
Hendrick cars led 103 of the first 152 laps. No Hendrick car led after that. Hamlin led 98 of the final 115 laps.
“It’s really hard to be great everywhere, but we try,” Hamlin said after his 46th career Cup victory tied him with Hall of Famer Buck Baker for 17th on the all-time wins list.
“We try the best we can to do that. But (Hendrick Motorsports) has just been really, really strong, obviously. They’re able to do great things with their cars, especially in traffic. That is very, very hard to replicate.
“We’re still taking steps and strides forward, I believe, to try to match them. Again, it’s very, very close. I never thought that we’ve been worse than a third- to fourth-place car on these tracks all year long. It’s just (Sunday), we kind of finished the deal.”
Kevin Harvick’s ninth-place finish Sunday might not seem impressive, but it was to him after the team’s struggles at Las Vegas back in March.
In that race, Harvick started on the pole and quickly faded. Contact damaged the car, but Harvick said the handling was poor before then. He finished 20th.
“We knew this would be our biggest challenge,” Harvick said of Las Vegas. “As we came here the first time and were able to run better this time, it was definitely an improvement, so that is a good thing.”
Harvick’s performance moved him two spots to 10th in the standings. He’s seven points below the cutline heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC).
Harvick will be without crew chief Rodney Childers at Talladega. Childers will serve a one-race suspension because Harvick’s car had two lug nuts not secure after the Las Vegas race.
If there is a race that a team can afford to not have a crew chief, it could be Talladega. Pit strategy is done through the manufacturer, so groups of cars pit together. With the event a one-day show, there’s not as much need for a crew chief there.
Before Sunday’s race, Harvick had more to say about Chase Elliott. Harvick likened talking to Elliott after their on-track incidents at Bristol last week to speaking with son Keelan.
“It’s identical,” Harvick said. “It’s 100% the exact same scenario. They get hung up on one thing and you can’t speak to them about the broader picture about how the whole thing works. It was like speaking to a 9-year-old.”
Las Vegas winner Denny Hamlin was asked about Harvick’s mind games with Elliott. Hamlin said that’s not what he sees.
“Harvick’s kind of mind games was more so earlier in his career,” said Hamlin, who was the subject of Harvick’s ploys in the past. “I think he was just generally pissed off last week and this week. I just think he probably legitimately had a gripe. I can’t condone one way or another. He had a gripe and he voiced it.”
It’s perhaps appropriate that Berry won on Saturday, the same day as the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway, one of the biggest Late Model races on the schedule and an event Berry won in 2019.
Berry was asked after his Vegas win if his success this season – he also won the Xfinity race at Martinsville in a part-time ride with JRM before Sam Mayer turned 18 and took over that car – can provide hope to those drivers who competed at Martinsville this past weekend.
“I really hope that I’m giving hope to some of these guys,” said Berry, who was in the No. 1 at Las Vegas in place of an ailing Michael Annett. “I hope it opens up more opportunities for them, not just in Late Models or Late Model stocks. There’s tons of great racers in modifieds and dirt and everything across the country.
“I think the biggest thing … is just how much had to line up to get me here. The insane amount of success of our Late Model team. Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and L.W. (Miller) just giving me an opportunity, all the partners that supported that got me there.
“Then this magical win at Martinsville that snowballs. All this stuff had to line up. Sam coming into our program. If he’s born a couple of months earlier, there’s no place for Josh, or Josh’s opportunity might be three or four races instead of 12. It’s just so hard to get here. I tell people that all the time.
“For a long time, I carried frustration feeling that I was capable at this level. I carried that frustration for a long time. I just never let it affect anything that I did. I just worked hard, raced, tried to win, enjoy myself. I just can’t believe how much my life has changed in the last year.
“After I won at Martinsville, a great friend and manager at JRM, L.W. Miller, who has been a part of my career for a long time, he said: ‘You did that. Now go drive your stake into the ground. Prove yourself. Make sure there is no way you are not in this series going forward. That’s what we did.’”
Lost in the results of Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Las Vegas was the performance of 20-year-old Howie DiSavino III.
Racing just days after his mother Dawn passed away after a five-year battle with cancer, he finished 26th. His mother’s name was above the door on his truck.
“My mom was one of the most compassionate people you would ever meet,” DiSavino told NBC Sports. “She dedicated herself to raising myself and my older two sisters. … I would always, after a race, call her and she would always tell me how great I did even if I had bad races.
“She would always be there for me. It’s definitely a big adjustment, but we all knew that this day was going to come eventually. Did we want it to come this fast? Of course not. She told me just two weeks ago, ‘Have fun at Bristol and Las Vegas and pass them all.’ It means a lot to me to race in her honor.”
Las Vegas was DiSavino’s fifth career Truck start. All have come this year for Jordan Anderson Racing. DiSavino’s best finish is 22nd at Pocono. He does not have any other Truck starts scheduled at this time.
“I knew it was going to be extremely hard,” he said of racing in the Truck Series. “We picked up the pace pretty good at each race track that we showed up to. … I’m appreciative of every opportunity I get to run races.”