Denny Hamlin is a threat to win at almost every kind of track on the Sprint Cup circuit, but can he turn that into a championship run in his 10th full season after coming close in 2014.
Hamlin was strong at Bristol over the weekend, setting a new track record in wining the pole position for the Irwin Tools Night Race and finishing third on Saturday night. It was
Hamlin's second straight top five finish after a fifth at Michigan.
Hamlin led the first 26 laps in his #11 FedEx Ground Toyota before giving way to teammate Kyle Busch. After a caution for Kyle Larson's wreck, Hamlin's crew got him out of the pits first. He then lost the lead to Busch again on lap 154. He just didn't have enough to track down Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick at the end of the night.
"I had a very average car for most of the night," Hamlin said.
"I thought we were pretty good early, lost the handle on it when the track really got rubbered up a bunch, and then we got better there at the end, but we still just didn't have the speed to run with the front two guys on that last run. I could hang with them for the first part of the run, but then I couldn't work traffic that well and those guys were able to get away. Just a decent average day. Definitely not what we expected."
Hamlin was fast all weekend, also winning the pole for the Xfinity race. But he was quick to point out how different the track is at night compared to when they practice and qualify during the day at the Last Great Coliseum.
"We practice in the mornings, the track is not rubbered up, and then we practice in the middle of the afternoon and the track's rubbered up, but it's hotter, so the conditions, everything changes so much at night here that you can't just think that because you're really good in practice you're going to be good in the race here."
Despite the current strength of Joe Gibbs Racing going into the Chase, Hamlin has just one points win at Martinsville and currently sits 10th in the Chase standings. He has been dominant at times like at Dover when
he seemed to have the car to beat but was caught up in a late wreck and finished three laps down. Hamlin has the equipment and the ability, he just needs to put together the right combination at the right time. His experience in the Chase format should help him in the final ten races, including at Homestead where he led late in 2014. A late strategy call to stay out on old tires cost him the championship he still covets.
As the team heads into an off week, Hamlin knows how important the upcoming test at Homestead is.
"The data that they can collect is very, very important. I know last year when we tested Homestead before the final race, it paid dividends. We ran really well. So I mean, what we're testing there for, I'm not sure if it's tire test or just confirmation test. I don't even know what the difference is really nowadays."