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Denny Hamlin seeks to turn around season at Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. — if it’s not one thing, it seems as if it is something else for Denny Hamlin this season.

Other than his win at Richmond, Hamlin’s season has been one of miscues and misfortune.

Saturday continued the trend for the winningest active Cup driver at Darlington Raceway. Damage to his diffuser during his qualifying lap forced him team to change it. He’ll start at the rear of the field in Sunday’s race, joining former Cup champions Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick.

“It’s been frustrating,” Hamlin said before Saturday’s qualifying issue. “I mean, honestly, it’s just been week after week of being the coyote (that) gets the anvil dropped on its head. I mean, I don’t even know how else to explain it.”

Here’s one way: Other than his win, Hamlin has not finished better than 13th in a race this season.

Here’s another way: Hamlin enters Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1) 23rd in the points. He’s only scored 54 points more than Brad Keselowski and that includes Keselowski being docked 100 points for a penalty earlier this year.

He holds a playoff spot because of his Richmond win, but he says the focus the rest of the regular season is wins and stage victories because he’s so far back in points.
“It’s actually simplified our strategy, we go for playoff points only,” Hamlin said of the bonus points awarded for race and stage wins. “So when you see the field start splitting because they want stage points or whatever, you know where the 11 stands from this point on. We’re trying to get five points at the end of the race and two for the playoffs during stages.”

Hamlin is in this spot because of the numerous issues the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has faced this season. The woes include:

  • In the Clash, a mechanical issue caused his steering wheel belt to come off and damage hoses, ending his race.
  • He spun under green entering pit road during his Daytona qualifying race.
  • He finished 37th after he was involved in a Lap 63 accident in the Daytona 500.
  • Toyotas had overheating issues and Hamlin sped on pit road, leading to a 15th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway.
  • A bad shift by Hamlin broke the drivetrain and he placed 32nd at Las Vegas.
  • He wrecked while running in the top three at Atlanta and placed 29th.
  • He spun late in the race at Circuit of the Americas and finished 18th.
  • The team was off at Martinsville, finishing three laps down in 28th.
  • An engine issue led to a 35th-place finish on the dirt at Bristol.
  • He had a wheel come off while exiting pit road and later was hit by Cody Ware’s spinning car and finished 21st at Dover after leading 67 laps.

“I’ve had more mechanical failures this year than I’ve ever had,” said Hamlin, who has failed to finish four of the first 11 races. “Again, you know, some of these parts that we don’t control, and NASCAR is continuing to change them and develop them to make them better so we don’t have a lot of problems, but we’ve just been kind of the poster child of the ones that break things.”

With the wheel coming off at Dover, NASCAR suspended Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, and two pit crew members. Joe Gibbs Racing has appealed and the suspensions were deferred, allowing Gabehart and the pit crew members to be at Darlington.

Asked if he was optimistic of winning the appeal, Hamlin said: “I’m not sure. The basis of it, the general feeling and what I’ve heard is that you know, this is not our gun. It’s not our nut. These are all parts that are given to us and there’s absolutely nothing that we believe our changers could have done differently. You know, the nut falls out. I don’t know how we control that. But you never know.

“You know, I think that they’re making their case. See how it all turns out, but certainly, yeah it’s important to have you guys here.”

They’re all here, it’s just a matter of if Hamlin and his team can avoid the issues they’ve had this season and score at least a top-10 finish.