Dr. Diandra: Denny Hamlin and the penalty box

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Denny Hamlin’s season is a study in contradictions. Two race wins guarantee a spot in the playoffs, but Hamlin sits 19th in points, with only four top 10s. Compare those numbers to Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain, who are tied for the most top 10s with 13 each.

Last year, Hamlin was the only driver with no DNFs. This year, he had four DNFs in the first nine races.

But, according to NASCAR’s weekly penalty reports, Hamlin does lead one category.

Penalties.

Hamlin was cited 29 times in the first 19 races of 2022. That’s five more penalties than the next-most-penalized driver, teammate Kyle Busch. Busch has amassed 24 penalties.

The graph below shows the 17 most-penalized drivers by NASCAR’s statistics. I highlighted the Toyota teams in green. All six appear in this graph.

The most-penalized drivers according to NASCAR penalty reports
The most-penalized drivers according to NASCAR penalty reports

There’s an interesting mix of driver experience and ownership level, including five former Cup Series champions. The top five names include two experienced drivers from a top-tier team, a rookie and two drivers from less-well-funded teams.

According to the same source, the Cup Series has assessed 513 penalties so far this year.

But all penalties are not created equal.

Intentional penalties?

A driver rarely pits while pit road is closed by mistake. A crew chief usually calls a driver to pit road early when the advantage of extra time on pit road outweighs the penalty.

It happens a lot.

Of the 571 total penalties, 242 are for pitting before pit road opens. I removed those penalties on the grounds that they’re strategic and not mistakes.

Similarly, teams received penalties for pitting early and for something else (like too many crew members over the wall) in about a dozen cases. I removed those secondary penalties that appeared intentional the same way as pitting before pit road is open does.

That leaves 257 unintentional penalties. If penalties continue at the same rate for the rest of the 2022 season, there would be 486 unintentional penalties by the end of 2022. IN 2021, drivers incurred 445 unintentional penalties.

This tally includes before-race penalties and during-race penalties, but not penalties assessed the week after a race. I’ll get to those in a moment.

Hamlin’s team incurred the most pitting-before-pit-road-opens penalties with 14. He had only six such penalties for all of 2021.

One reason the number is high this year is that Hamlin has been involved in 11 accidents, spins or stalls. Then again, so has points leader Chase Elliott, but he doesn’t even make the graph with only four unintentional penalties.

I’ve re-plotted the revised data below, again highlighting Toyota drivers in green. Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch fall off the graph, each having only five unintentional penalties. All four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers remain.

The most-penalized 2022 drivers when only unintentional penalties are considered
The most-penalized 2022 drivers when only unintentional penalties are considered

The Hamlin team’s 12 unintentional penalties drops it from first place to tied for second place with Kyle Busch. Using the same algorithm, Hamlin’s team had 11 unintentional penalties in all of 2021.

Most teams end up on the left side of this chart because of speeding on pit road, the most common driver-incurred penalty. B.J. McLeod has nine such penalties in only 15 races — the most of any driver in the Cup Series. Corey LaJoie comes in second with eight — although LaJoie has run all 19 races.

Hamlin has only four speeding penalties in 2022, all of which happened in the first 11 races of the year. Two of Hamlin’s speeding penalties came after pitting from a top-five running position.

Hamlin ties for the most speeding penalties of any driver in the top 20 in driver points with Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon and Daniel Suárez. A little more than halfway through the season, Hamlin has amassed two-thirds of his speeding-penalty total for the entire 2021 season.

And then there’s Dover, where a wheel came off the car. Hamlin lost crew chief Chris Gabehart and two pit-crew members for four races.

The 35,000-foot view

The chart below summarizes the two before-race penalties, 10 unintentional race penalties and one after-race penalty, along with Hamlin’s finish and finishing status for each race.

A table summarizing Denny Hamlin's penalties for 2022
A table summarizing Denny Hamlin's penalties for 2022

The total comes to six driver penalties (four speeding on pit road and two driving through more than three pit boxes) and seven crew penalties: unapproved adjustments (two), equipment interference (two), too many crew over the wall (one), improper fueling (one) and the loose wheel.

Most unintentional penalties are mental mistakes. Toyota teams have had a roller-coaster year, shining at some tracks and disappointing at others. Toyota expected to be at a disadvantage in the first part of this season. Without practice, track results depend heavily on simulation, With six cars compared to 15 chartered cars each for Chevy and Ford, Toyota has much less data. Validating their simulations is slower.

Hamlin has the additional burden of being both driver and owner. This week’s signing of Tyler Reddick showed how involved Hamlin is in running 23XI. Hamlin’s ongoing feud with Ross Chastain is one more distraction.

The time Hamlin may gain on pit road using an alternative pit-stop choreography isn’t much of an advantage if it’s simply offsetting an increased number of penalties.

Last year at this time, Hamlin was leading the points standings, two points ahead of Chase Elliott.

This year, Hamlin’s — and his team’s — biggest challenge may be not beating themselves.

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Dr. Diandra: Denny Hamlin and the penalty box originally appeared on NBCSports.com