ONE: Don’t Sleep On…. Denny Hamlin?
24/7 news cycles these days can cause storylines to be greatly exaggerated. So it’s no surprise everyone and their mother screamed, “Don’t sleep on Denny Hamlin!” seconds after his astounding Darlington comeback.
It’s true Sunday’s Southern 500 was perhaps a stepping stone in Hamlin’s career. A driver who’s at times been hampered by emotion finally put a major mental mistake behind him to win. Even five years ago, you wonder if missing pit road could have led to a trip into the outside wall, a 35th-place finish and a down-in-the-dumps Hamlin after the race.
Instead, the maturation of this 36-year-old, now a father of two was impressive to watch. Seeing it on display to win a crown jewel event was icing on the cake. But in reality, Hamlin’s team remains about 2 1/2 steps behind Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Larson. On paper, they’ll start the playoffs almost 40 points behind Truex, a deficit that carries through each round.
But is Hamlin really as far behind as it seems?
We’ve seen so often in sports the playoffs is about peaking at the right time. Hamlin, driving for a Joe Gibbs Racing team that’s hit high gear across the board now has four top-five finishes in the last five races. And looking ahead to the postseason, each round has a winnable race for the No. 11 team.
First up is Chicagoland, a place where Hamlin has run sixth, first, and sixth the past three years. A victory there gives an automatic bid into round two, where the Russian Roulette of Talladega looms. But assuming Hamlin misses the “Big One,” he led 43 laps at that track, second to teammate Busch while winning a stage in the spring.
Survive to round three and there’s Martinsville, easily his best track on the circuit. Earning five career wins there, one more punches an automatic ticket to Homestead where anything can happen. It’s a track where Hamlin owns an average finish of 10.6, has won as recently as 2013 and earned four straight top-10 finishes.
Other drivers, including teammate Busch are still in far better shape to take the title. But if you’re looking for a darkhorse? Hamlin fits the bill.
TWO: Toyotas To The Top. What Else Is New?
Surprise, surprise. The closing laps at Darlington gave us a Toyota running down a Toyota for the victory while (can you guess?) a Toyota sat lurking in third place. Overall, Camrys led 200 of 367 laps, including the last 22 en route to taking four of the top six spots.
In case you’re not counting at home, Toyota’s now gone six-for-eight since Kentucky. They sit first, second, and fifth in the regular season standings and have charged ahead in the manufacturer’s race. Looking ahead, can you see a Final Four consisting of Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth?
That seems plenty feasible considering even a winless Kenseth has been on his game the past few weeks. Compare them to Ford, where Joey Logano is on the verge of missing the playoffs, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed at Darlington and Ryan Blaney is in freefall (not a single top-five result since that Pocono victory).
Over at Chevy and Ford it’s Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick, respectively, who both led laps at Darlington, that have the edge on Jimmie Johnson. Larson appeared the strongest of the trio Sunday night, leading 124 laps but again found himself fading in the stretch run. Once Truex passed him for the Stage 1 win it was a slow but steady decline the rest of the way.
Ditto for Harvick, who suffered a tire issue (loose wheel) in stage 3 along with Johnson. They were helpless as the Toyotas zoomed past into the sunset.
There’s a long way to go but right now, that feels like the ten-race playoffs unless the Fords and Chevys can figure something out, fast.
THREE: Terrific Season For Truex
While Truex has been solid all year, making the regular season points championship no surprise let’s stop and give him credit. This guy drives for a Furniture Row Racing team based in Colorado, not Charlotte, in a car that led just one lap all season three years ago.
From the end of 2014, when both parties contemplated divorce until now has been a remarkable ride. Through 25 races this season, Truex has a career high for top-10 finishes (10) and we still have 11 races left to go. He’s led more laps the past two seasons than his previous decade as a Cup driver. The stats are amazing and so is the maturation for a guy some thought was never championship material.
He’s 11 races away from proving them wrong.
FOUR: The Cream Rises To The Top
Sure, Richmond always offers one last hope to drivers desperate to make the playoffs. You never know if a Logano or Dale Earnhardt Jr. can pull one out of their hat.
But Darlington, the first race after the final off week showed the best drivers were on top of their game. 11 of the top 12 Southern 500 finishers have either clinched a spot or are in playoff position; the 12th, Erik Jones, was fifth but never led a lap.
It all adds up to tall odds for Clint Bowyer, plus NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver and a long list of others looking for a miracle. I think the August off week has now set the stage for teams to, in essence start the playoffs two weeks early. You want to enter Chicagoland on top of your game, right?
So Darlington and Richmond now are major tune-ups to the dismay of those on the outside looking in. It’s two weeks to strut their stuff rather than lay back until the postseason because there isn’t time to breathe.
But maybe that doesn’t even matter. The myth of the regular season finale, anyways has always rested on Jeremy Mayfield’s remarkable win in 2004. But since then? Not once has someone earned a spot through a Richmond victory.
Expect it to stay that way.
FIVE: Throwback Darlington, Forever?
Our Bryan Gable wrote a piece about Darlington throwbacks I thought was right on the money. As I mentioned Friday, the idea of connecting NASCAR’s past is a good way to bring fans back into the fold, if only for a couple of minutes. If you were a big Dale Earnhardt fan and you see a Wrangler paint scheme throwback? Or if you loved Richard Petty and the STP colors will run one more time? Then you’re going to sneak a small peek at the TV screen, right?
It’s up to the racing to keep you there for more than a few short minutes. But I read with interest a few comments from fans, both in email and on Frontstretch about how the throwbacks got them to the track. It’s one of the sport’s best ideas the past few years and there’s no reason it can’t continue.
Sure, at some point we’re going to have to get creative; you can’t run the exact same schemes every year. But overall, the pretty colors brightened up the night and NBCSN did a great job connecting them to NASCAR history. Add in Ken Squier, Ned Jarrett, and a fantastic race to the finish to get a formula you wish the sport could bottle and use elsewhere.
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