By David Morgan, Associate Editor
FORT WORTH, Texas – Denny Hamlin came into Texas Motor Speedway with a double-digit point cushion over the cut-off line in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, but things didn’t exactly go according to plan on Sunday and he’ll have his work cut out for him going forward.
As the top driver not yet locked into the championship race at Homestead, Hamlin started the day 24 points ahead of fifth-place with a third-place qualifying effort. Despite starting at the front of the field, things quickly went awry for the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as he broke loose coming off Turn 4 on lap 80, losing control in the traction compound that coated the upper groove of the 1.5-mile oval.
Instead of it just being a lazy spin through the infield grass along the frontstretch, the front end of Hamlin’s car dug in when sliding through the grass. Compounded by the transition between the grass and the Legends oval that connects pit road and the frontstretch, much of the front splitter and other parts on the front end were ripped away, immediately ending any chance Hamlin had at sweeping the season at Texas.
Sixth caution in Stage 1 is a new record this year, and it comes with #NASCARPlayoffs implications.
Denny Hamlin slides into the grass and the nose digs in. pic.twitter.com/chr37m44Ua
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 3, 2019
“The traction compound, it takes so long to burn in. It just wasn’t ready,” Hamlin explained. “I wasn’t trying to be up there. I just got a little tight behind the car that was in front of me. Barely got my right sides in it, hit a bump, put the left sides in it, and it was all over.
“It’s nobody’s fault. I’m the driver of the car, but certainly wasn’t even trying to test it up there. It just wasn’t ready It’s just a really narrow track up until that stuff burned in, which was later in the race.”
Hamlin’s team began thrashing on his car to get it back in drivable shape, allowing him to return to the track and meet minimum speed. Though he wouldn’t be in contention for the win, Hamlin was able make up a number of positions over the remaining laps of the race, eventually coming home six laps down in 29th place.
The finish marks his worst of the Playoffs and couldn’t have come at a worst time, something Hamlin noted after the race.
“Your whole season can turn with one particular race, but I mean, it’s just part of the format,” Hamlin said. “You know what it is going in. We’ve done a really good job his entire Playoffs of maximizing our day and having really good days, but today just wasn’t a good day.”
Now sitting 20 points below the cut line, Hamlin will have to hope for a stellar run at Phoenix next week in order to keep his hopes of competing for his first championship alive. Given the events of the past week, it is ironic that Joey Logano is the driver currently standing in his way as the defending Cup champion holds the fourth and final transfer spot.
When looking at Hamlin’s record at Phoenix, he has one win, 12 top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, two poles, 678 laps led, and an average finish of 11.3. In the spring race at the track, the first with the current package, Hamlin led seven laps en route to a fifth-place finish.
“It could be worse,” Hamlin joked. “It could have been more points. Just definitely got the mentality to go out there and try to win. That’s what we’re going to try and do.
“I’m optimistic we can win. We’ve been really good there for many, many years and knowing that we have to go win, it puts a very easy strategy, I think, in our hands. If anything, I think you have an advantage when it comes to the cautions coming out and some people battling for stage points, we’re going to get good track position as long as we’re competitive at the end of that race, because we’re going just for the race win.”