OK, class, it’s time for a pop quiz!
We’re through five races in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. After Sunday’s (March 14) race at Phoenix Raceway, who’s the points leader?
If you guessed any of the five drivers who have visited victory lane, you’d be wrong.
In fact, the race winner highest in the point standings is Phoenix winner Martin Truex Jr. in fourth.
Yes, the points leader for the last month has been someone who has yet to win a race.
Adding to the situation is Hamlin is arguably off to a better start in 2021 than 2020, when he won the Daytona 500 and eventually seven races.
He finished third Sunday, giving him four top fives in five races. In 2020, he didn’t earn his fourth top five until race No. 8, the second race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval.
“Our consistency is really good,” Hamlin said Sunday. “Really, every week last year we had a chance to win most weeks. It’s just whether we took ourselves out of it through mistakes or not. So far this year, knock on wood, we have been good on the mistake front.
“We haven’t had that dominant car like we’ve had during some races last year yet, other than Daytona. I thought our car was very, very good. We’ve just been hanging around that second, third, fourth all year. It’s a good start because we got something to build on here.”
While Hamlin has finishes of fifth (Daytona 500), third (Daytona International Speedway road course), 11th (Homestead-Miami Speedway), fourth (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and third (Phoenix), his 39-point advantage over Keselowski can be attributed to stage finishes. So far, Hamlin has three stage wins: both stages in the Daytona 500 and stage two on the Daytona road course.
He finished fourth in stage one on the Daytona road course (seven points), second in stage two at Homestead (nine points) and fourth and third at Las Vegas (15 points) before repeating that in Phoenix.
As I’ve noted in this column, 2021 is NASCAR’s Season of Weird. It didn’t take a week off in Phoenix.
While Truex earned his 28th Cup Series win, he also earned his first on the one-mile track. He only had four top fives in his first 30 Phoenix starts.
So far, every Cup driver who’s won this season earned their first win at each respective track.
“I’ll be honest with you, if we would have come here last year in the final four, I would have been not very confident,” Truex said after earning his first win since last June at Martinsville Speedway. “It’s never been our greatest track, I’ll say that. … I’ve never come here with a really warm, fuzzy feeling that we’re going to go there and win, we’re going to go there and be really, really strong and lead laps.
“That was definitely a nice surprise today.”
Aside from Truex’s victory, there weren’t any other shockers in the top 10. Five of the top six finishers were former champions, with Hamlin the exception.
Previous winners this season — Kyle Larson, William Byron and Christopher Bell — placed seventh through ninth. Larson now has five consecutive top 10s at Phoenix. Byron earned his career-best Phoenix result and his third consecutive Phoenix top 10. Bell claimed his first Phoenix top 10 in three starts.
Sunday marked the first oval race of the season with the 750-horsepower, low-downforce package. Both Hamlin and Joey Logano cited the switch as to why there likely wasn’t anything truly weird about the results.
“I think the 750 package is harder to drive,” Logano said. “When you come to a short track, there’s comers and goers. Knowing how to go fast on a short run versus a long run, Denny is probably one of the best at figuring that balance out. I think probably that experience behind the wheel helps, kind of knowing what you need in your racecar to go as fast as possible.”
Hamlin observed that “most of the experienced guys” were around to run “this whole package in 2017. If you have less experience than that, this is kind of a new thing for you, other than we cut the spoilers off on the short tracks last year.”
Those veteran drivers, Hamlin added, “understand how to manipulate the car when it’s not handling perfectly. You can move your line around and change some things. That’s stuff that takes experience.
“Experience in this sport is just so underrated simply because you see so many things. We’ve all been through tire changes, car changes, aerodynamic changes, track changes, that we’re ahead of the game, I guess you could say. Especially now that we have no practice, I mean, it lends itself even more to experience.”
The 750-horsepower package won’t be seen again under normal circumstances until April 10 at Martinsville. Before then, the Cup Series uses the 550-horsepower package this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Then things get truly weird, and dirty, on March 28 with the race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the first Cup Series race on dirt in half a century.
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