Wheel loss, crash hamper Denny Hamlin’s promising day at Dover

The relative high of being a Stage 1 winner gave way to a near-immediate series of lows for Denny Hamlin on Monday at Dover Motor Speedway.

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Hamlin’s latest bout with misfortune in his so-far surreal NASCAR Cup Series season left him with a 21st-place finish in Monday’s conclusion to the DuraMAX Drydene 400. It’s his sixth finish outside the top 20 in 11 races to date this year.

“I just can’t believe this, man,” Hamlin told his Joe Gibbs Racing team during the Stage 2 break as his crew repaired his No. 11 Toyota.

Hamlin led 55 of the 78 laps Sunday before rain pushed the 400-miler to a next-day finish. He added 12 more laps in front in taking the green-checkered flag at Lap 120 of 400, notching his second stage win of the season.

Hamlin’s advantage fizzled during the round of Stage 1 pit stops. His No. 11 Camry left pit road first, but did so without its left-front wheel, forcing him back to pit road for a replacement.

“A lug nut came out of the gun, and we did not know it until it was too late, obviously,” No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart told Hamlin over the radio after the incident. “It is what it is.”

Hamlin lined up 29th for the start of Stage 2. He had worked his way back up to fourth place near the stage’s end when collected by the spinning No. 51 Ford of Cody Ware, prompting a caution period on Lap 243.

Hamlin’s car sported a right-side gash that his crew taped up. He limped to the finish, one lap down.

“Everybody showed a lot of speed today,” Gabehart said on the No. 11 radio during the cool-down lap. “This is what we’re capable of. We’ve just gotta get hot when it matters. We know what we’ve got. Get ready to go at the next one.”

Hamlin has one victory this season, a triumph he posted April 3 at Richmond Raceway. But that remains his only top-10 finish, a nettlesome record that has him 23rd in the Cup Series points.

Hamlin actually gained a spot in the pecking order Monday, but further movement up the standings will likely come with a short-term shift in his No. 11 team’s personnel. The guidelines of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Rule Book require four-race suspensions for each the crew chief and two crew members (jack, tire changer). This week’s penalty report would formally confirm those suspensions.