Already Denny Hamlin has won twice in seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races this season, demonstrating such high-level consistency that he is second in the standings heading into Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
And yet, despite a stellar a start to the season, Hamlin prefers not to rejoice over what his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota team has thus far accomplished. Instead, Hamlin prefers to look ahead, adamant that he and his team can – and will – be even better as the season progresses.
Hamlin’s belief is supported by the fact while he has two wins -- the season-opening Daytona 500 and last week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway – he and his No. 11 team have actually been quite mistake-prone. The team has been penalized four times in the past three races for rules infractions on pit road – two for Hamlin speeding, and two for the pit crew having an uncontrolled tire. Last week, Hamlin had to twice rally back from penalties to win at Texas.
Nonetheless, Hamlin’s two wins are tied for most in the series and he’s finished in the top 10 in every race but one. He trails JGR teammate Kyle Busch, who’s also won twice this season, by a mere eight points in the standings.
“I’m confident that if we can still have those kind of results with those kind of shortfalls, that we’re a team that can battle back and once we do have clean races, we’re going to have dominant races,” Hamlin said. “… I just feel like we’re definitely going to be better a few months from now than what we are now.”
It isn’t just the penalties Hamlin looks at as why he and the No. 11 team will be better in the future. Hamlin is in his first season working with crew chief Chris Gabehart, a first-year crew chief in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Obviously, based off the results, Hamlin and Gabehart have clicked well enough that Hamlin is off to the best start of his 14-year career. But that all important chemistry between driver and crew chief, so often the difference from a team being very good and being excellent, is still developing, says Hamlin. He credits Gabehart for helping him evolve as a driver by bringing a different approach than what he’s accustomed to, coinciding with NASCAR implementing a new aerodynamic rules package this season that has required further adjustments.
Ultimately, Hamlin wants to replicate the kind of relationship that Busch has with his crew chief, Adam Stevens. That will take time, though it is not lost on Hamlin that Busch and Stevens won the 2015 Cup championship in their first season together.
“I just feel confident in that and knowing that certainly with a little bit more execution and more learning with me and Chris we’ve continued to get better and better every race track we’ve gone to,” Hamlin said. “We’re really learning each other more and more.
“I feel like we’re not even close to the level of relationship that like Kyle and Adam are at; that’s where obviously you want to go with it. We’re miles apart from them as far as that aspect, but we’re not miles apart as far as how we’re running right now.”