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Missing 2020 speed, Denny Hamlin making the most of what he’s got

Steve Letarte and Dan Beaver break down the matchup odds, top car and more for the Buschy McBusch Race 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Optimization has been the order of things for Denny Hamlin this season.

From Hamlin’s perspective, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team is still missing the raw speed that pushed them to seven wins and a Championship 4 berth last season.

Thus, the regular season points leader has focused on getting the most out of cars that, more often than not, have been just off.

“There’s only two races where we’ve had race-winning cars that we didn’t win,” Hamlin said Friday in a media teleconference.

One of them was Daytona. Obviously, Daytona is Daytona. There’s the drafting and you can’t always control your outcome there. The other one was Richmond.

“Beyond that, we just optimized our day. We were second or third-best at every race track we went to from Daytona to Richmond.”

Statistically, Hamlin is the early standard-bearer. Through 10 races, he leads the NASCAR Cup Series with eight top-five finishes, 737 laps led, a seventh-place average finish, and an average running position of 6.5.

But he’s still looking for his first race win since last October’s playoff race at Talladega. And as Hamlin knows, the numbers can tell a different story than the one you’re living.

“You look at our (average) running position - yeah, we were leading laps at Martinsville, but the two guys we were really racing that day had issues and fell to the back,” said Hamlin. “So, I led a lot of laps (race-high 276) and people think and equate, ‘Oh, you’re leading laps, you’re the fastest car.’

“Well, that’s not always the case, so I’m not really disappointed. ... I don’t beat our team up too much about the wins, because we truly haven’t had the dominant cars that we had last year, where we led all the laps because we were super-fast and we just beat the competition.

“This year’s been a little different. We’ve been really, really close and really, really consistent and up front. Just not, the overall outright speed that we had last year. But we’re getting better. We’ve led the most laps three races in a row, so we’re pretty strong.”

He’ll look to keep moving from strength to strength at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1), where he made his first Cup start in October 2005.

The 1.5-mile track seems as good a place as any for Hamlin to chalk up his first win of the year.

He’s won two of the past three races there, and his three wins overall are tied for the track’s all-time lead with four other drivers, including Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.

But it hasn’t been until recently that Hamlin found his groove at Kansas. In his first 18 Cup races there, his average finish was 17th. In his last seven races, his average finish has been 8.1.

“It just seems like me and (crew chief) Chris (Gabehart) have found a set-up there that works well to us, and once you have that good data point, it makes it a little bit easier to replicate that,” said Hamlin, who starts 20th Sunday.

“I think that it’s a track that I feel comfortable at. You can move around several different lines there and be fast, so I like the ability as a race car driver to be able to move around and adjust my race car based off the line I run.”