Did You Notice? … Denny Hamlin has had the best start to a season statistically in his NASCAR career? Hamlin currently leads the points by 81 over teammate Martin Truex Jr., over a full race’s worth, while piling up eight top-five finishes in nine starts. His average finish of 4.2 is less than half the total of anyone else in the NASCAR Cup Series. Consider Hamlin’s accomplishing this feat at age 40 while balancing co-ownership of a new team, 23XI Racing, under daily scrutiny with partner Michael Jordan and driver Bubba Wallace.
There’s just one important bullet point missing on the resume: a win. After leading a race-high 207 laps Sunday (April 18) at Richmond Raceway, a late caution allowed Alex Bowman to close an insurmountable gap, then steal a win after an outstanding final restart.
When questioned about the second-place slip-up, Hamlin didn’t flinch.
“I’d rather be where I am than Alex Bowman,” he said. “We’re smashing everyone.”
Smashing everyone? In many ways, yes. Hamlin’s on pace to lead 2,776 laps in 2021; it would be the most for any driver in Cup since Rusty Wallace won 10 races and led 2,860 laps for Roger Penske in 1993.
While early in the year, a 4.2 average finish is outpacing Cale Yarborough’s 4.5 from 1977 to set a new modern-era record.
More recently, that 4.2 blows Kevin Harvick’s 7.3 average from last season out of the water.
But you know what Harvick also had, a nice consolation for not making the Championship 4?
Hamlin has none, the fastest car in so many races with nothing to show for it. There was the season-opening Daytona 500, where a bid for three straight in the Great American Race fell victim to the wrong late-race pit strategy. The No. 11 Toyota paced the field for a race-high 98 laps only to get blown past by the Fords down the stretch.
You could also argue Hamlin should have pulled off a short track sweep. He was in position to challenge Joey Logano on the final restart in the Bristol Dirt Race, coming up third. At Martinsville Speedway, he took charge in the final stage (276 laps led) only to get passed by Truex with 16 laps remaining. Then, at Richmond, Hamlin was battling Logano until a late-race crash by Harvick, of all drivers, caused it to all fall apart.
On paper, this type of season should have already produced a handful of victories. Let’s take a look at how Hamlin compares, nine races in, to some of the better NASCAR performances in the modern era.
Hamlin (2021): 0 wins, 8 top 5s, 8 top 10s, 4.2 average finish, 694 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… ???
Kevin Harvick (2020): 1 win, 5 top 5s, 8 top 10s, 6.0 average finish, 391 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… 9 wins, 20 top 5s, 27 top 10s, 7.3 average finish, 1,531 laps led.
Martin Truex Jr. (2017): 1 win, 2 top 5s, 6 top 10s, 8.8 average finish, 432 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… 8 wins, 19 top 5s, 26 top 10s, 9.4 average finish, 2,253 laps led.
Carl Edwards (2008): 3 wins, 4 top 5s, 5 top 10s, 14.8 average finish, 306 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… 9 wins, 19 top 5s, 27 top 10s, 9.5 average finish, 1,282 laps led.
Jeff Gordon (1998): 2 wins, 4 top 5s, 5 top 10s, 11.1 average finish, 214 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… 13 wins, 26 top 5s, 28 top 10s, 5.7 average finish, 1,717 laps led.
Dale Earnhardt (1987): 6 wins, 8 top 5s, 8 top 10s, 3.4 average finish, 1,624 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… 11 wins, 21 top 5s, 24 top 10s, 5.9 average finish, 3,357 laps led.
Cale Yarborough (1977): 5 wins, 7 top 5s, 8 top 10s, 3.6 average finish, 1,628 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… 9 wins, 25 top 5s, 27 top 10s, 4.5 average finish, 3,218 laps led.
Richard Petty (1975): 5 wins, 6 top 5s, 8 top 10s, 5.3 average finish, 1,584 laps led in nine races.
Ended with… 13 wins, 21 top 5s, 24 top 10s, 6.6 average finish, 3,158 laps led.
Notice the glaring missing piece for Hamlin: a victory. He’s competitive with all these other Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, but each one had already scored a win to build momentum along the way. In digging through the modern era, only Dale Jarrett’s championship year (1999) with an average finish of 6.8 stands out as one that produced a goose egg in victory lane through this point. But Hamlin led more laps and collected more top fives than Jarrett during this initial nine-race stretch.
So what you’re left with, then, is Hamlin smashing through nearly as many missed opportunities as top-five finishes. He sits sixth when it comes to playoff points, behind Truex (11), Ryan Blaney (8), Kyle Larson (8), Logano (7) and William Byron (6). All that dominance has produced only five bonus points, well off the pace of Truex’s record-setting 54 in 2017 (Harvick collected 52 bonus points in 2020).
Even that total wasn’t enough to save the No. 4 team last year when they stumbled in the postseason’s Round of 8. Harvick showed us, to his dismay, that Lady Luck has a way of balancing out the law of averages. At some point, Hamlin’s going to have his rainy slip into the wall at Texas Motor Speedway moment. That’s where a start like this one should have provided a buffer for him.
Instead? It’s just not there. Hamlin’s leaving the door open for an incredible season to be all for naught.
Did You Notice? … The latest eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race has another conspicuous absence on their entry list? A few weeks after initially leaving 2020 winner Timmy Hill out of the competition at the virtual Bristol Dirt Race, causing MBM Motorsports to pull back from a full-time Cup schedule, another full-timer without a charter wasn’t extended an invite.
This time, it’s JTG-Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece, left off the 39-driver grid despite attempting all nine races this season. Preece is missing from a field that includes eight-year-old Keelan Harvick (not a misprint; Harvick’s son is competing) and Jesse Iwuji, the Fan Vote winner who has 16 combined NASCAR starts in both the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series.
Preece is handling the snub pretty well, hawking some merchandise before responding to Frontstretch writer Mike Massie’s tweet with a little humor.
Be sure to order one when they go up!
P.s. My $ is on @KeelanHarvick
Better yet, is there a side bet for him to beat @KevinHarvick 😆
— Ryan Preece (@RyanPreece_) April 21, 2021
But why did Preece need to be left out? (The other full-timer not participating, Kurt Busch, has a tire test obligation at Nashville Superspeedway). The great thing about iRacing is, depending on the track, you can make these fields larger than the regular Cup field! Talladega Superspeedway can hold 43 cars, three more than Cup in real life. There’s no need to snub guys like Hill and Preece, still competing in Cup with “open” cars that have made full-time efforts in recent years. Preece is still in postseason contention and may well wind up running all 36 races if more sponsorship is found.
Here’s one way you can’t find extra sponsors; not participating in this type of event that evens the playing field. With a third-place finish in the Talladega Pro Invitational race last year, amidst the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, Preece could have easily been a contender again. What a shame his team doesn’t get that chance to showcase sponsors and lock up additional TV time they might not get otherwise.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Eight winners in nine races? Yes, 16 regular season winners is possible. But to get there, you need a wild card winner at a track like Talladega. Bubba Wallace? Matt DiBenedetto? Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? A Cinderella to be named later? I’m talking to you.
- In light of the Derek Chauvin verdict, I’m just going to leave this one here – a conversation between two NASCAR friends, one black, one white, both united in their fight for racial justice.
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) April 21, 2021
Rest easy, George Floyd.