By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service
It’s been a fittingly sentimental kind of week for Denny Hamlin leading into Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at the historic Darlington Raceway.
Hamlin is the defending race winner and statistically brings the highest driver rating to the 1.3-mile track known for being so difficult it’s nicknamed “Too Tough To Tame.”
In fact, last year Hamlin, 37, swept the nostalgic NASCAR weekend – also hoisting his fifth Xfinity Series race trophy as well. All five victories came from the pole position, too. And in the three Xfinity races Hamlin didn’t win, he finished runner-up – all this in an eight-race span between 2006-2017.
So, when it comes to Darlington Raceway and this particular race on Sunday, September 2 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Hamlin is understandably sentimental. And confident too.
“I’m really not sure,’’ Hamlin said of why he races so well at arguably the toughest venue on the Cup circuit. “I tested here when I was kind of auditioning for a ride at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) in 2003, I think it was.
“I was at a test here with Tony (Stewart) and really the first lap I killed the wall in Turn 2 and I think we ended up hitting the wall 19 or 20 or maybe even more times during that test – enough to where we didn’t have any sheet metal left on the right side of the car. It had worn completely through.
“Since that point, it just kind of clicked. I came here for my very first Xfinity start and finished eighth and just from that point on – I don’t know. It’s just something about the race track that fits my particular driving style.”
Hamlin’s style has resulted in 31 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophies – including the 2016 Daytona 500 – and he’s won at least one race every year since he started racing full time in the series. In 2010, he won a career best eight races and finished runner-up in the Cup championship. Four times he’s won three or more races in a season.
But in 2018, Hamlin is still looking for that first win – an important element in challenging for the Cup title. Although he is currently safely ranked 13th with the top-16 drivers Playoff eligible, Hamlin wants that victory to boost his team and maintain a personal mark of achievement.
“It’s important,’’ he acknowledged of the win streak. “I think that there’s only a handful of drivers that have won over 10 years straight. It’s important.
“I still believe that we will win a race before the season is over, if not multiple. It’s got to start this weekend. The countdown is on. In 2013, we waited until the last race of the year to win. A little bit of an asterisk because I was hurt most of that year, but still it’s a streak for certain that is important to me.”
Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been close to victory. He finished third in the season-opening Daytona 500 and has six top-fives and 12 top-10 showings through the first 24 races. He won back-to-back pole positions at Watkins Glen International and Michigan International Speedway, just prior to the last race at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago.
A win is assurance, a win is confidence. Multiply that 10-fold when you’re acquiring good will at a tough place in a difficult race, like Darlington. And no one’s raced it better in the last decade.
Including his first Southern 500 Cup win in 2010, Hamlin has finished sixth or better in seven of the last eight races, including back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2013 and last year’s second victory. He’s led laps in six of the eight races and twice he led at least 100 laps.
“I think what makes it difficult is in the Southern 500, it’s such a long race,’’ Hamlin explained. “There’s a lot of attrition and things that can happen. That’s what makes it hardest to repeat or win multiple times.
“Just a lot of great drivers have run one race this year because it’s just a test of your mental state, your physical state – I’ve fainted in the shower I think twice after this race just because you just get so dehydrated.
And, he added, “I’ll tell you, it’s definitely one of the most physical race tracks that I can think of – way more than the Coke 600 or any other race track. I consider this the endurance test of all and so you got to have it all put together.
“You have to have a car that you don’t make any mistakes. You’ve got to have a fast car when it’s dusk there towards the end and then when it goes full night at the end of the race, you’ve got to have a car that performs well. It’s just truly a test of a lot of different things and that’s why it’s hard to repeat.”