DARLINGTON, S.C. — Denny Hamlin had a long talk with crew chief Chris Gabehart beside their Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota on pit road after Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500. The grueling opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs had started off with such promise for Hamlin, who seemed intent on adding a fifth Cup victory at Darlington Raceway with trademark dominance.
The opportunity for early advancement on the postseason grid unraveled after night fell on the historic track, with Hamlin dipping to a 25th-place finish in an event where he led large swaths for a race-high 177 of the 367 laps. The stumble came on a night where several contenders on the 16-driver playoff grid encountered problems, and Hamlin was not immune from that sting.
“We think we‘re going to win every week. There‘s not one week where I show up and I don‘t think I‘m going to win,” Hamlin said when asked if the performance encouraged him for the rest of the playoffs’ opening round. “But you‘ve got to play the game, and sometimes when you play the game, it doesn‘t work out the way you planned. I am happy about the speed the car had and the restarts that I had. The things I had to work on I felt like I really did well today. It‘s part of the process. We move on and if we advance, all we really lost out on is five points for the next round so we‘ll see.”
With 94 laps to go, Hamlin was forced to make an extra green-flag pit stop, feeling he had a loose wheel. The unscheduled trip down pit road dropped him to 30th in the 36-car field, one lap down. He was later caught up in a chain-reaction tangle on the frontstretch that triggered the final caution period, halting some of his progress.
Hence, the long conversation with Gabehart, who said the debrief was more reflection on how the night went than pep talk.
“One thing I’ll say about Denny, he’s such a professional that even if he’s gutted inside, he’s not gonna let you see it, and he’s well-rounded enough that he knows as much as it sucks, this is just a part of racing,” Gabehart said. “So no, we were just sharing a moment of man, what a great job, what a great car, what a great drive. And just truthfully, we’re rounding in on our fifth year together and everyone has these stories, but I can tell you, I spend a lot of time looking at the numbers and as many races as we’ve won together — it’s been 19 — I can tell you it could easily be in the 30s, well into the 30s, and this is just another one that we’re gonna have to put into that column, unfortunately.”
Hamlin, fresh from his sixth Darlington win in the Xfinity Series in Saturday’s undercard, started second Sunday and took control midway through the opening stage. Victories in both stages added a pair of playoff points to his total and provided a buffer in the standings for what was to come.
After the first round of pit stops in the final stage, Hamlin brought the No. 11 Toyota back to pit road, feeling something was amiss with the left-rear wheel. After the additional four-tire change knocked Hamlin from contention, Gabehart later radioed Hamlin to note the team could not find an issue.
“Everything we can tell, the wheel looked fine, bud,” Gabehart said.
Hamlin replied: “It was loose. I felt it.”
Hamlin was less certain post-race, but said the feel of his car made the extra stop necessary.
“It’s really tough to tell,” Hamlin said. “It looked like the left-rear was still tightening as we were gone. It’s close enough to where it didn’t matter. What I felt, I was gonna crash if I kept going. I had to bring it in and just turned the day upside down.”
Gabehart said that the issue was not worth risking, considering which wheel was in question. He also put his trust in his driver’s instinct and experience to make the pit-road call.
“There was not anything visible to the naked eye, but the left-rear is orders of magnitude the most sensitive tire on the car to being loose because of the way it gets loaded on track,” Gabehart said. “So if you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not real, because it’s so sensitive. And when we finally went back and looked at the footage, which takes time to get, first thing you’re gonna look at is assess the wheels. You can do that right away. It takes you a few minutes to get all of the footage from the pit-crew members to evaluate. And once we looked at the left-rear wheel nut being drawn up, there is a doubt. It’s not for sure, but there is a doubt. …
“I mean, my guy’s won 50 of these. He’s been doing it for nearly 20 years. He knows what he feels. So live on TV, it probably looked uncertain, but I’m certain. Denny knows.”
The stage stockpile of points helped Hamlin offset the subpar finish, which included a scrape with 35 laps remaining. Hamlin opened the postseason as the No. 3 seed, and he slipped two spots to fifth in the Cup Series standings.
The circuit heads next to Kansas Speedway, site of the middle race in the opening Round of 16 next Sunday (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM, NBC Sports App). Hamlin prevailed in the Cup Series’ most recent visit there in May, but the unpredictability factor is expected to remain high. Converting at Darlington would have released that pressure valve.
“Either way, I hate it for the team. I hate it for Denny. I hate it for the pit crew. I mean, God, they had an amazing day. I think by any metric, they’re going to be a top-three team on pit road today, if not the best,” Gabehart said. “But, it’s NASCAR racing, and in today’s world even a fraction of an error is the difference. And today it was, and it hurts a lot. It hurts to keep losing races these ways where we clearly have a car, in this case, the winning car. I mean, Denny had never even shown his whole hand, I’m confident. It’s not enough to be winners in your heart. You gotta get it all right, and man, it is frustrating to keep missing out on opportunities.”
Contributing: Staff reports