Team: #11 (Joe Gibbs Racing)
Top 5s: 12
Top 10s: 22
Best finish: 1st (Daytona, Watkins Glen, Richmond)
Points finish: 6th
Denny Hamlin entered the 2016 season with high expectations of continuing Joe Gibbs Racing’s success in the Cup Series. After just one race, Hamlin was already atop the points standings.
Hamlin kicked off the 2016 season with a dramatic victory in the Daytona 500, but started to drop in the standings in the following races. Despite two 3rd-place finishes at Phoenix and Fontana, Hamlin continued to fall, eventually dropping out of the top-10 after Talladega. He remained on the borderline of cracking the top-10 until he was classified 9th in points after the August Pocono race and locked himself into the region for good after surviving a wild finish at Watkins Glen for his first career road course win. He backed it up with a dominant performance at Richmond to record his third win at the short track and third of the season.
The Virginian displayed consistency during the Chase, finishing outside of the top-10 on only two occasions. However, the success was not enough to guarantee him a spot in the final round as his pit gamble at Phoenix failed and he was eliminated.
The Daytona 500 win. After starting 11th in the Great American Race, Hamlin fronted a Toyota-dominated race with a race-high 95 laps led. However, teammate Matt Kenseth led the final portions of the race.
On the final lap, Hamlin was on the outside line while Kenseth, fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. and JGR teammate Kyle Busch ran on the inside. As they entered turns 3 and 4, Hamlin gained enough momentum to pass the inside line and catch up to Kenseth. Kenseth moved to the outside to make the block, forcing Hamlin to move inside. Noticing the move, Kenseth attempted to dive down to block Hamlin again, but the two made contact, which sent Kenseth into the wall and left Hamlin and Truex to duel for the victory as the start/finish line approached.
Side-by-side, the two engaged in a drag race to the finish. They crossed the line almost simultaneously, a finish that was so close, it required NASCAR to review it before declaring a winner. After a brief deliberation, Hamlin was announced as the winner of the Daytona 500 by just .01 seconds, the closest finish in race history.
“I had no anticipations of winning this race on the white flag lap. I didn’t know we had won, I knew it was close. I saw the pylon change and blink at the last second with the 11. I heard people on the radio crazy and excited and assumed we won at that point,” Hamlin stated. “If not, I was going to be pissed.”
The win was Hamlin’s first career 500 victory and the first for JGR since Dale Jarrett’s win in 1993.
The first two races of the Round of 12. After a strong Round of 16, Hamlin’s Chase hopes were jeopardized after Charlotte and Kansas.
At Charlotte, he started 9th and ran strong throughout the day, including leading 52 laps. However, his day came to an abrupt end on lap 307 when his engine failed; he had been running in 3rd. As a result, he finished the race in 30th and dropped to 8th in points; setbacks for fellow Chasers Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick kept Hamlin on the Chase bubble.
Hamlin acknowledged the incident as another instance of his bad luck during the Chase. “I’m so used to it by now,” he stated. “I’ve been doing this 11 years; I can’t think of anyone else that has had as bad luck in the Chase as I have. It’s just part of it, part of racing. I have every piece of the puzzle just perfect to win these championships and this is just a hiccup.”
His Chase mishaps continued at Kansas when his car began to suffer from splitter issues and eventual tire damage. By lap 41, he had dropped to 35th place. However, he started to work his way back up the field from there, improving to 24th by lap 44 and 14th by lap 70. By lap 152, he was 6th. Despite this momentum, it fell apart late in the race. He was penalized twice during his final pit stops and later collided with Brad Keselowski. Hamlin finished 15th and dropped further in the standings to 10th. Once again, Hamlin expressed his frustration by stating, “Everything went wrong. Just stupid stuff and then penalties when we shouldn’t have them and just another year of the same stuff.”
On the brink of elimination, it took a 3rd-place finish and winning a tiebreaker with Austin Dillon to advance him to the Round of 8.
Hamlin was the lowest-finishing JGR driver in the points standings, though it was not a poor finish either way, as he still finished 6th in points. As his contract his expected to expire after the 2017 season, Hamlin will hope to record a strong season to prove his place at the Toyota team.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press