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Denny Hamlin scores another top-five finish, but will not winning hurt him later?

Joe Gibbs Racing's Martin Truex Jr. came alive late at the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500, passing Denny Hamlin with 16 laps to go to earn his second Cup win of 2021.

It’s hard to quibble with another top-five finish, but will this opening stretch of the season hurt Denny Hamlin later in the year?

Hamlin’s third-place finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway marked the seventh time in eight races this year he has placed in the top five.

No one can match that.

No one comes close.

So, what’s the problem?

Hamlin hasn’t won this year. He has three stage victories, giving him three playoff points. But for a driver to run so well and have so few playoff points could become a concern.

Hamlin’s stretch is reminiscent of what teammate Martin Truex Jr. — who won Sunday for his second victory of the year — did last season.

Truex won only once last year, but he had 14 top-five finishes, including a stretch of eight such finishes in a row. The problem is that Truex only scored seven playoff points. Added with the bonus he earned at the end of the regular season, he entered the postseason with 14 playoff points.

Crew chief James Small said last week that not having enough playoff points played a role in the team not advancing to the championship race last year.

“That’s where we kind of got let down and we were forced to win at Martinsville and Texas (to advance to the championship race) last year and just missed out on both,” Small said.

By not being in a strong enough points spot, the only way to advance was to win. When Truex didn’t, he saw his title hopes end.

On Sunday, Truex passed Hamlin for the lead with 16 laps to go and went on to win. Truex now has 11 playoff points. He is one of seven drivers with more playoff points than Hamlin.

“We definitely would like to have more, for sure,” Hamlin said of his playoff point status. “But the way we’re running, we can win any given week. We’ve just gotten beat by one or two cars each and every week that have just hit the setup a little bit better than we did.

“But it is, like you said, hard to complain. I don’t know what the record is for most points scored in eight races, but I think we pretty much got to be there (laughter). We don’t finish any worse than third in every stage, obviously we’re finishing in the top three or four every race.”

If nothing else, Hamlin’s fast start has given him a large lead in the points. The driver with the most points at the end of the regular season is awarded 15 playoff points. Provided Hamlin continues to run well, he could be in position to collect those points.

He ranks first in the regular season standings with a 76-point lead on Truex. The most points a driver can earn in a race is 60 points, meaning Hamlin has more than a full race’s lead on the rest of the field. Only three drivers are within 100 points of Hamlin after Martinsville.

Hamlin left Martinsville without a win despite leading 276 of the 500 laps. But a long green-flag run to finish the race doomed him.

“Had a really good car on the short run all day,” he said. “Got great restarts. Was fast for 25, 30 laps. Then it seemed like guys would start catching us. Unfortunately, it was just too many laps there at the end that we couldn’t hold those guys off. At least gave ourselves a chance by getting a good restart there and getting in front of Martin.

“Ultimately they were running better, turning the corner, getting off than we were. Came up short again.”