Long: Denny Hamlin’s knockout punch sends him to title race

Dustin Long

AVONDALE, Ariz. —Denny Hamlin punched the dash of his car in frustration nine years ago at ISM Raceway, the beginning of a collapse that cost him the Cup championship.

Sunday, he unleashed a flurry of punches after a win at the same track that lessens the pain of that miserable day in 2010 and could catapult him to his first series title.

Hamlin is changing the narrative of a Cup career in its 14th season that features two Daytona 500 victories but numerous playoff disappointments. It comes in Hamlin’s first year with crew chief Chris Gabehart.

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Gabehart’s demands and Hamlin’s ease with pressure have Hamlin joining Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in next week’s championship race in Miami.

Hamlin is just the second Cup driver since the playoff format debuted in 2014 to race his way into the championship by winning the season’s next-to-last race. Harvick had to win at this track to make the 2014 title race and followed it the next week by winning the championship in Miami.

Two days before Sunday’s race, though, Hamlin sought to temper any disappointment should he fail to advance to the championship, saying: “It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not.”

Gabehart saw the comments and others like them and texted Hamlin.

The message was clear. Expect more of yourself.

“The biggest thing he always keeps pushing is that ‘We’re here to win, we’re not going to settle for anything other than winning,’ “ Hamlin said of Gabehart.

“I’m more of a ‘Let’s not get too high, let’s not get too low.’ I always like to put myself in the middle, to prepare myself both ways. I don’t think he does. I think he only prepares to win, and he’ll deal with it if he doesn’t.”

Gabehart has challenged Hamlin and helped him find areas he can be better, leading to six victories — the most since Hamlin won eight races in 2010 — and his first appearance in the title race since 2014.

“The biggest thing I see,” spotter Chris Lambert said of Gabehart’s influence on Hamlin, “is he holds Denny accountable for everything. It’s not just ‘Well we struggled on restarts or we had this issue. Why do we struggle? How can we fix it? We’ve got to fix it for you to be that elite driver that we know that you are.’ ”

Before the season, Gabehart went over race analytics, a deeper measure of racing statistics beyond results, with Hamlin and Lambert.

“It opened Denny’s eyes,” Lambert said.

Hamlin responded by winning the Daytona 500 to be the first driver to qualify for the playoffs.

But there have been challenges along the way, particularly in the playoffs. Hamlin’s mistake last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway led to a crash that put him 20 points behind Joey Logano for the final transfer spot.

Sunday, Hamlin struggled on restarts. He fell from first to fifth on the restart at the beginning of the second stage. Gabehart talked Hamlin through following restarts, telling him at one point to think of his strategy but don’t overthink things.

Overthinking his situation has been a fault associated with Hamlin since 2010. An ill carburetor forced Hamlin to make an extra pit stop late in that year’s race at ISM Raceway, costing him several positions and points. Instead of having a comfortable lead on Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick entering the season finale in Miami, Hamlin had a slight lead. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin in the press conference a few days before the title race, unsettling Hamlin. Hamlin then qualified poorly and spun in the race, losing to the title to Johnson.

Those two weeks have defined Hamlin to some.

“I’ve answered so many questions about that day (at ISM Raceway) and the role that it played in the finish of the 2010 season,” Hamlin said.

The questions may cease now.

In the midst of one of his best seasons, the Texas crash and pressure situation could have undone Hamlin. It would have years ago, but he’s become more comfortable as he’s aged — he tuns 39 the day after next week’s race.

This week, Hamlin shared a house with Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse and friends. Hamlin even admitted to playing tennis at 1 a.m.

“I think a lot of people sometimes think athletes need to be extremely focused, and not that we aren’t, but you’ve also got to balance that with some fun and come to Phoenix and getting to golf and go out and eat nice food is a good way to get your mind off all the pressure you have on Sunday,” Larson said.

While Hamlin was frustrated to see a multi-second lead disappear when NASCAR called a caution nine laps from the finish when John Hunter Nemechek hit the wall, he remained calm and handled the pressure well.

Gabehart kept Hamlin in the lead with what seemed a risky two-tire pit stop for a car that had been so dominant. Hamlin benefitted with Ryan Blaney also taking two tires to start beside him and ahead of Busch and Truex, who each were on four fresh tires.

Then it was up to Hamlin to win to advance. Hamlin followed Gabehart’s guidance, plotted his strategy and didn’t overthink it.

“I wanted to choose the top (lane on the restart) simply because I thought if I went into Turn 1 side‑by‑side, I’d rather be on the high side,” Hamlin said. “I thought that I’d seen Kyle get a pretty good run in the traction stuff on a few restarts. I saw it in a few restarts in the Truck race, as well.

“I just thought if I was going to be at a deficit of grip versus my competition, I had the option to go up there and get more. It was going to be a longer distance, but I had the option to go up there and get the grip they didn’t have.

“So I think that was the reason I did it. Luckily it all worked out, for sure. Especially I think having (Blaney) under there with two tires there, as well, gave me a little buffer there. If it was Kyle, I’m not sure I would have held him off, but I would have damn sure tried.”

He didn’t have to worry. Now, Hamlin is off to Miami to have fun and race for a championship.

“I’m going to enjoy the moment,” Hamlin said. “All you can ask for at the start of the year is to ask for an opportunity for a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete.  It’s goal accomplished. Now we just got to go out there and do it.”

Just as Gabehart would say.

Expect more of yourself.

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