Strong Start for Denny Hamlin
For the first time since all the way back in 2010, Denny Hamlin won at Texas Motor Speedway — his second win in seven races this season, and statistically his best start to a season in 14 years of running full-time at the Cup level.
Hamlin has never started a season better, even when you include his eight-win 2010 season, which fell agonizingly short at the last hurdle. Truth be told, expectations for Hamlin weren’t that high heading into the season, especially with Martin Truex Jr. joining the Joe Gibbs Racing fold and the eternal domination of Kyle Busch in just about any vehicle he hops in. But the wheelman from Chesterfield, Virginia has laid down an early marker to suggest that he’ll be very much in contention when the serious business of the playoffs begins in September.
Hamlin has always been a driver for whom confidence is paramount, and in rookie crew chief Chris Gabehart he appears to have a found a perfect foil. Now, it’s early days of course, very early, but the initial prognosis for Hamlin and the No. 11 team with a season worst finish of 11th, a nice act of numerical symmetry, is very positive.
On Sunday (March 31), Hamlin overcame the adversity of two pit road penalties (one on him, one on his crew), not to mention missing pit road under green as well. There’s no question Hamlin needs to stamp out those unforced errors if he’s going to take a run at the hitherto elusive championship. The parts and pieces appear to be in place, and if Hamlin can keep his confidence high and his form comparable to what we’ve seen thus far there’s good reason to suspect he could be part of the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Raceway come November. Yes, it’s early days and there’s many a miles of racing to go, but of the evidence so far, Hamlin looks like a contender.
When I wrote this time last week, the 2020 schedule had yet to be released. I opined that we would see evolution, not revolution, but overall, it felt to me like it was more in the latter camp than the former.
We did in fact see a number of changes, and of those, I really like moving Darlington Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway into the playoffs, as well as the doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, which could be a really fun race weekend and something a little different in the modern era for NASCAR.
Moving Daytona to the final race of the regular season will also create a “last chance to make the playoffs,” but it is a shame, no question, that this will no longer be over the July 4th weekend. What I do wonder about, however, is having the last race of the season at ISM Raceway. Given the expenditure to modernize the venue it does make sense, but Homestead has been a tremendous location for the final race, and I for one, am sad we won’t be seeing the season concluded there. All told, however, I feel like these changes are very positive for NASCAR and augur well for even more changes in 2021.
Heartbreak for Leclerc
This past weekend at the Bahrain Grand Prix, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc looked absolutely dominant in practice and then qualifying where he took pole position with a new track record. In doing so, Leclerc became the second youngest pole winner at just 21 years and 166 days. The youngest, for the record, is his teammate Sebastian Vettel, who joined Leclerc on the front row of the grid making it 62 front row lock outs for the Ferrari – a record they share with McLaren and Williams, neither of whom are likely to extend that record in 2019.
“Thanks guys. Car was amazing,” Leclerc said on the cool down lap after picking up P1, “I’ll push to try and finish the job tomorrow.”
And after losing several positions on the start, Leclerc knuckled down and drove his way back to what looked to be an unassailable lead. Then came disaster with his engine struggling to make the requisite power, and a once huge lead (nearly 10 seconds) quickly eviscerated.
In the end it was a late safety car freezing the field, and seeing an F1 race finish under yellow for just the eighth time in history stopped Leclerc from losing a podium finish. Scant consolation, truth be told, for Leclerc who took his crushing disappointment well.
One thing is for sure, though, Leclerc’s time is coming, maybe as soon as the next Grand Prix, and given the raw speed he and his team has shown in 2019, expect him to march his way to the victory champagne sooner rather than later. And if he and Ferrari keep this up, he could well make a sustained run at a maiden championship.
Next Up: Bristol
For the eighth race of the 2019 season, we pay our first visit of the season to Thunder Valley. This will be the 117th Cup race at Bristol, a streak that runs all the way back to 1960.
The first race at NASCAR’s coliseum was won by Jack Smith – one of the 21 victories he picked up in his 15-year, 264-race Cup career. For once, it’s not Jimmie Johnson who dominates the active driver historical records with the Busch brothers in the first two positions sharing 13 wins between them — Kyle Busch has seven victories while Kurt Busch has six. And two of those wins came last year, with Kyle picking up the checkered flag in the spring race while older brother Kurt won the night race.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has the best average finish of 11.3 in 12 races, but has yet to pick up a win at the half-mile concrete bullring.
Another week, another qualifying debacle which even the official NASCAR.com site described it as a “a muddled qualifying session.” This is, of course, a euphemism for a complete fiasco. Yes, at least drivers made timed runs in the final session, but there’s no question it left a bit of a sour taste.
“The optics of what’s taking place with the teams is not tenable for us with the fans, so we’re going to look at every option, including the possibility of going to single-car qualifying,” NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell, said. “I think it’s ridiculous, candidly. I mean, I know the drivers did not like this qualifying that we were going to do before the season, so part of you says, ‘Are we doing this on purpose to get rid of it?'”
Strong and forthright words, that’s for sure, and you shudder to think how these discussions have unfolded behind the scenes away from the prying camera lenses. All told, though, you have to feel change is coming again to the process because, simply put, it can’t continue.