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Dr. Diandra: Christopher Bell finishes better, but stats show Denny Hamlin still JGR’s top driver

Marty Snider, Dustin Long and Dale Jarrett discuss the young group of drivers emerging in the NASCAR Cup Series following Tyler Reddick and William Byron's recent wins, and what it means for the future of the sport.

RICHMOND, Va. -- Denny Hamlin remains the top driver at Joe Gibbs Racing despite Christopher Bell’s rapid ascendancy. While Bell has better finishes, Hamlin’s stats show him to be more competitive.

In 2022 — just his second year with Joe Gibbs Racing — Christopher Bell led the team in wins, top-five and top-10 finishes. He was the only JGR driver to make the Championship Four.

Six races into 2023, Bell again seems to be JGR’s top dog, as the table below shows. Although no JGR driver has won a race yet, Bell has logged the most top-five, top-10 and even top-15 finishes.

A table showing the finishes of each JGR driver for the first six races of 2023

It’s tempting to herald a changing of the guard at JGR, especially with Kyle Busch’s departure to Richard Childress Racing. Such a story might remind Hamlin of his first full-time season with JGR in 2006.

Tony Stewart was in his eighth year in the Cup Series. He won five races, had 15 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes and just missed making the playoffs (which were then called The Chase.) Stewart finished 11th in the standings. Rookie Hamlin had two wins, eight top-five finishes and 20 top-10 finishes — but he made the Chase and finished the season in third.

That was 17 years and two generations of car ago.

Hamlin still tops driver at JGR

Like most experienced drivers, Hamlin needed some time to adapt to the Next Gen car. Although he made the playoffs, Ross Chastain’s Hail Melon move kept Hamlin out of the Championship Four.

Hamlin’s 2023 season is off to a much better start, as the table below shows.

A table comparing representative statistics for Denny Hamlin for the first six races of 2022 and 2023

Hamlin’s improvement is helped by having completed all the laps in the first six races this year. Last year at this time, he had a 50% DNF rate. Hamlin has earned 76 more points this year than last and spent almost 90% of all laps in the top 15.

Although he finished sixth at Fontana and Atlanta, Hamlin has not finished in the top five in 2023.

A deeper dig into the loop data shows that Hamlin is much more competitive than his finishes suggest. I’ve highlighted the top scores within each metric in red in the table below.

A table comparing loop data metrics for JGR drivers for the first six races of 2023

Hamlin leads JGR drivers in:

  • Average finish
  • Laps led
  • Average running position
  • Average green-flag speed
  • Laps in the top 15

Hamlin beats Bell in average finish position by only 0.1 positions, but his lead is much larger in the other metrics.

In each category where Hamlin dominates, Bell takes second place. But Bell qualifies, on average, almost six positions better than Hamlin.

JGR against the garage

Toyota is at a disadvantage when it comes to change. Because they have only six full-time teams (compared with 13 to 15 each for Ford and Chevy) they get less data per race than their competitors.

Their lag was obvious in 2022 but is narrowing this season. Tyler Reddick earned Toyota’s first win of 2023. The table below shows each JGR driver’s rank relative to all full-time Cup Series drivers.

A table showing JGR drivers' rankings relative to all full-time Cup Series drivers
A table showing JGR drivers' rankings relative to all full-time Cup Series drivers

Hamlin ranks second among all full-time drivers in average running position with a 9.6 average finish. Only William Byron’s 8.2 tops Hamlin’s average. Alex Bowman, Chastain and Busch fill out the top-five drivers. Bell, the next-highest JGR driver, ranks ninth.

Hamlin’s 9.3 average green-flag speed rank places him third behind Byron (7.2) and Reddick (8.2). Bell and Truex also rank in the top 10 for average green flag speed.

Hamlin’s weak point thus far is closing. He attributes the difference between his 13.2 average finishing position and his 9.6 average running position to the end-of-race pandemonium that has characterized so many of this season’s contests.

“It’s chaos,” Hamlin said Saturday at Richmond Raceway ”I’ve done a horrible job on some restarts. I’ve lost many, many, many spots on these green-white checkers and just got ping-ponged around on a few of these restarts.”

“I know we’ve gained a tremendous amount of stage points over what we did last year,” he continued. “It’s because we’re up front. We’re just... these late race yellows are killing us.”

Despite Hamlin besting Stewart in Hamlin’s rookie year at JGR, Stewart went on to win another Cup Series championship in 2011.

Even given that Hamlin is in his 18th full-time season while Stewart was, at the time, in the middle of his career, it’s far too early to cast Hamlin in the role of the old-guard driver being pushed aside by the young upstart. Hamlin remains the top driver at Joe Gibbs Racing.