There’s no question, Denny Hamlin said, that since the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season he’s been a different driver.
“I know that I am,” he said. “There’s a lot of changes that have happened on and off the track that have contributed, I’m sure.”
Now 39 and in his 15th season racing full time in NASCAR’s Cup Series, the Manchester High graduate has been in a groove since being paired with crew chief Chris Gabehart at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019.
Twelve of his 43 career wins have come in the past two seasons. The other winning stretch he’s had like that was 2009 and ’10, when he won four and eight races, respectively.
He comes to Richmond Raceway on Saturday (7:30 p.m. on NBCSN, no fans) for the Federated Auto Parts 400, the second race of the Cup Series playoffs, in strong position for another shot at the championship that has eluded him.
Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have dominated the win column this season. If either is not among the final four drivers vying for the championship in the final race at Phoenix on Nov. 8, it would be a huge surprise.
Harvick took the first race of the playoffs at Darlington on Sunday by winning his eighth race. Hamlin, running among the leaders with fewer than 60 laps to go, had the kind of mishap that he can’t afford later in the playoffs.
Slowing down to get on pit road, Hamlin was bumped from behind by Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin missed the exit, had to go around again, never recovered and finished 13th.
Hamlin recovered quickly from a winless 2018 — his only winless season since he’s run full time — after he and Gabehart teamed. They won the Daytona 500 in their first race together, then won it again this year.
Hamlin’s team has been a threat almost every week. In 63 races the past two seasons, it has finished in the top five 34 times.
“I’ve just adapted quite a bit,” Hamlin said last week during online media days for the playoffs. “It’s tough to say what automatically has just flipped the switch and made the results be what they’ve been over the last two years or less than two years, but certainly there’s a process that we put into preparing for each week that is working for us. It’s working for me.
“Me and Chris have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is. I just know we’re performing at tracks that necessarily haven’t statistically been strong suits for us, and each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s happening.”
Hamlin was the runner-up for the championship in 2010. His chances in the final race last year went out the door after Gabehart had his crew put a piece of tape on the grille during a pit stop. That’s done to try to improve a car’s aerodynamics, but the risk is the engine can overheat. Hamlin’s machine overheated. He had to make another stop and finished 10th, last among the four drivers eligible for title. Kyle Busch won the championship.
Gabehart shouldered the blame for the tape. Hamlin said he and Gabehart didn’t talk about that decision until near the start of this season, when they were chatting about strategy for the year.
“He’s like, ‘Are you not going to ask me why I put that thick piece of tape on your car?’” Hamlin said. “I was like, ‘Nah, I assumed you had a reason for it, so I just figure it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is go out there and drive as fast as I can every single lap and tell you the information that you need to make the car go faster.’”
Hamlin and Harvick have been on the fast track all season. Getting to the championship race as two of the final four, Hamlin said, would be “the right scenario.”
“There’s a lot of work that’s got to get done to get us to that point, but that’s probably the right thing when you think about how a championship should be crowned,” said Hamlin, who has three wins at Richmond and has finished lower than sixth just once in the past nine races here.
“But, our format’s a little different. You’ve got to go out and win that final one.”
Note: The Cup Series race will be the finale of four races in three days at the track. The Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series runs the ToyotaCare 250 Thursday at 8 p.m. The Xfinity Series Go Bowling 250 is set for Friday at 7 p.m. Scheduled as part of a Saturday doubleheader with the Cup race is the Xfinity Virginia is for Racing Lovers 250 at 2 p.m. NBCSN will televise the Cup Series and Xfinity races. The Truck Series race will be televised on FS1.