NASCAR Cup Series
Inside the Decisions that Decided the Cup Race at Richmond
Apr 4, 2022
They wouldn’t admit it but winning on Sunday very well could have been a season saver of sorts for Denny Hamlin, Chris Gabehart and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
At 41 years old, Hamlin doesn’t get wrapped up in the regular season standings anymore. The modern elimination playoff format, combined with 16 teams making the initial round, means Hamlin typically doesn’t have to worry about anything until September.
That changed after last weekend at Circuit of the Americas.
"Honestly, I went on NASCAR.com for the first time and looked at the standings last week," Hamlin said. "I knew we were buried. Whether you’re 22nd or 23rd, what’s the difference? I know we had a hole to dig out of."
It was worse though, because they were 29th, not that the distinction made a difference. He told the media during a press conference on Saturday morning that he wasn’t anxious or concerned. That conviction was rewarded with him strategy assisted victory on Sunday at Richmond Raceway.
"I told you guys on Saturday, like, am I concerned? No. Like, we’re going to be okay," Hamlin said. "We’re going to make the Playoffs."
Then he looked at Joe Gibbs next to him on the post-race press conference table and said:
"If we don’t, then he should fire me."
Gibbs laughed and said, ‘Oh really,’ but Hamlin already set him up for the comeback.
"Instead, now, I’m going to ask for a raise," Hamlin said.
All joking aside, neither Hamlin nor his compatriots at Gibbs or Toyota had much to laugh about through the first two months of the campaign. TRD president and general manager David Wilson didn’t mince words in calling Phoenix two weeks ago 'an absolute embarrassment' and 'our worst performance' in NASCAR.
The manufacturer and its flagship team were clearly on the bottom of the totem pole behind Chevrolet and Ford.
Hamlin, specifically suffered from bad luck in crashes at Daytona and Atlanta, but also created problems of his own. He arguably had the car to beat at Las Vegas in February when he broke the transaxle by downshifting on pit entry -- muscle memory from the previous generation of car.
The 11 team hasn’t been trash by any means, but with a spec car and the possibility that more than 16 drivers could win a race this season, finding yourselves 29th in the standings entering the seventh race would not be easy to overcome.
"I’ve mentioned three tracks in the first six that we could have won if we didn’t make mistakes," Hamlin said. "I don’t get too panicked because, like we talked about with the team, they just have so many good people that eventually it works itself out. You can’t just continue to have cautions not fall your way, get run into here and there.
"Eventually, you can’t roll the dice and continue to roll seven out. The odds are, if you keep banging on the door, it’s going to open. That’s what we’re trying to do."
But NASCAR works in confounding ways sometimes.
One year after battling Hamlin for the 2020 championship, a nine-win Kevin Harvick went winless in 2021 despite the sixth best average finish of his career, evidence that running well and rolling the dice isn’t always a guarantee of future success.
There was no guarantee Hamlin would just right the ship, win or even point his way into the Round of 16 this autumn. There is no guarantee that he would roll into Martinsville this coming weekend, the best track over the course of his career and pick up with the new car where he left off with the old one.
"We took 80 horsepower away from him, gave him a two-inch wider car, it’s 200 pounds heavier, has a higher center of gravity and better brakes," Gabehart said. "He’s going to go to Martinsville in the first 10 laps and be as lost as last year’s Easter egg.
"He was so honed-in on perfection of what that car was for so many years. This car is going to be wildly different. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun for you watch, why you’re seeing great racing. But golly, it’s a lot of learning for these guys, for sure."
What if Gabehart's strategy call only netted Hamlin a podium on Sunday? It would have felt good, but he would still be outside the top-20 having already used up several mulligans he couldn’t afford to repeat this summer.
What if this new car takes away every advantage he ever had at Martinsville and they couldn’t find that Easter Egg on Sunday?
Now they’re still outside the top-20, and the pressure is starting to mount with 16 races left to go and counting. Maybe it’s a non-issue for Hamlin and Gabehart but what if it wasn’t? That’s what made the win at Richmond a weight off the shoulders.
They’re locked into the playoffs and can just focus on getting their arms wrapped around this radically different racing platform.
"We're going to go to work," Hamlin said. "I mean, Joe does a great job motivating our entire group, but we work really hard. We know that waiting seven races to win is not ... let's say we have a level of expectation that's better than that.
"I’m glad we’re able to kind of turn the ship around at least for a week. Next week we’re going to see if we really started to build some momentum going forward.
"I don’t want to look too far ahead because I certainly want to celebrate this one. It sure is a positive sign considering how we ran as an organization at Phoenix. But you never know."
That's the key.
You never know, and this roll of the dice might have been a season saver, not that we'll ever know.