KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For the second week in a row, Denny Hamlin appeared poised to win a race in the opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs but didn’t take home the checkered flag.
Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Hamlin took the green flag for NASCAR Overtime third in the outside lane, the first car in his lane on four fresh Goodyear tires. But a rough restart plummeted the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as far back as eighth place exiting Turn 2. He rallied to second on the final lap but ultimately couldn’t catch race winner Tyler Reddick, who drives the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing — the team Hamlin co-owns.
This race — 23XI’s third win in the past four Kansas races — goes into Hamlin’s win column as a team owner, but he’s not exactly eager to celebrate this one.
“I am not enjoying the 45 winning right in this second, for sure,” Hamlin said. “I mean, on Sundays, certainly I’m a driver first. You know, when it was our first couple (victories), you’re super-excited for them. This one just stings a little bit more for me personally, just having a car dominant at the end and not winning.”
Hamlin led 63 laps in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, the middle stanza of the Round of 16. Hamlin’s runner-up finish sets him 49 points above the provisional elimination line — nearly locked into next week’s round finale at Bristol Motor Speeedway (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “Nearly,” though, means he’s not officially in. Victories at either Kansas or one week earlier at Darlington Raceway — where he led 177 of 367 laps — would have done the trick.
Hamlin was sailing toward the checkered flag unchallenged at Kansas before a caution came out with six laps remaining when a flat tire sent Chris Buescher into the outside wall. Daniel Suárez opted not to pit under the caution period and assumed the lead for the restart as most everyone else hit pit road. Erik Jones, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano each took right-side tires only. Hamlin was the first off pit lane with four new tires, just ahead of Reddick.
Lining up for the restart, Hamlin chose to restart in the outside lane behind Jones and Busch on two; Reddick chose the inside lane behind Suárez and Logano. But when the front-runners throttled up for the green flag, Hamlin was caught focusing on his rear-view mirror as Kyle Larson lagged behind him trying to get a better restart.
“I’m trying to back up to him because I can’t afford to let him just lag way back and then split us three-wide,” Hamlin said. “So I back up, field goes green and I’m sitting there in no man’s land. So it’s just a bad scenario, and it allowed the 45 to hit the gap that I wanted to hit in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2. So you know, battling back to second is OK, but certainly it was a tough caution that certainly wasn’t good for us.”
Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief, felt the No. 11 Toyota was “clearly the best car” and its speed showed in NASCAR’s loop data, where Hamlin ranked No. 1 in green-flag speed at 169.174 mph and second in total number of fastest laps — 31 to Larson’s 50.
“The 5 (Larson) kind of had their trouble and it was obviously gonna be us and the 5 again at the very least, and that’s me being generous,” Gabehart said. “We executed a great play. Four tires was clearly the right call. But first thing’s first: You gotta get a good launch when you’re only racing three miles, and we didn’t do that.”
Gabehart has been paired as Hamlin’s crew chief since the start of the 2019 season. Including a one-off sub-in role in 2017, Sunday marked the duo’s 165th race together. By Gabehart’s count, the No. 11 team was capable of winning 60 of those. Instead, they’ve won 18 — a far-more-than-respectable number, but a reminder of ones that fell by the wayside.
“Sixty times. Sixty times we’ve been capable of winning,” Gabehart said. “Our 60th anniversary, in my own personal way of looking at things, and there’s no one that’s a bigger critic of this race team than me. So when I tell you we’ve been capable of winning 60 times, and we only have 19, that’s frustrating. But you’re not going to win 100% of the races you’re capable of winning. The key is you’re capable of winning. I’m just so proud of my team for the longevity that we’ve shown together since 2019 and the ability to be capable of winning nearly each and every week we show up.”
The No. 11 team’s downfall at Darlington was a pit-road miscue in the final 100 laps — a left-rear wheel left just loose enough to force Hamlin back to pit road and ultimately leading to a 25th-place finish. There was little doubt the crew would bounce back from the costly error, but that it did spoke volumes to Gabehart.
“No surprise is a stretch,” Gabehart said. “That minimizes the effort that it (takes) to rebound from such a crushing defeat like that — and from how far off we were as a company just 30 races ago. And I don’t want to minimize it. This pit department, this pit crew has put in a hell of an effort to get to where they’re at. A crushing defeat last week by the narrowest of margins. It was not an egregious error. So what are you made of, right? What are you made of on your worst days? Are you gonna fold or are you gonna show up? And they showed up this weekend. It’s a fantastic group and they will keep showing up.”