Denny Hamlin led a race-high 202 of 400 laps in Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway, but was forced to pit late for fuel and finished 18th at his hometown track in the #11 FedEx Express Toyota. A late rain shower forced the team into a different strategy than most of the leaders, as Hamlin tried to stretch his fuel to the finish. Eventual winner Clint Bowyer was able to make it the distance, but Hamlin had the dominant car throughout the night.
Starting seventh, Hamlin quickly worked through the field and battled Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead before the first rain delay brought out the red flag. Following the break, Hamlin continued to lead through a series of green flag pit stops. Another caution for rain came out with 120 laps remaining, and with the team close to its fuel window and ominous skies, crew chief Darian Grubb kept Hamlin on the track in case showers washed out the finish. The rain cleared, however, and Hamlin pitted from the lead for fuel before the green flag, and worked his way up from 16th to second before the final stop with less than 10 laps remaining. Hamlin enters the Chase as the top seed based on his series-high four victories in the regular season. He is making his seventh-straight Chase appearance this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Milestone Start: Hamlin will make his 250th career Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. The 31-year-old driver has amassed 21 victories and 124 top-10 finishes in 249 races since his debut at Kansas Speedway in October 2005. Hamlin has competed in 60 Chase races over his career, nearly one-quarter of his starts, and remains the only rookie to qualify for NASCAR’s playoff, doing so in 2006. His 21 victories have come on 12 different tracks, including five (New Hampshire, Kansas, Martinsville, Phoenix and Homestead) that will host Chase races this fall. The FedEx Racing team has two top-10 finishes in six starts at Chicagoland Speedway, including a fifth-place result in 2010.
How will you treat this year’s Chase from the driver’s seat? “I won’t treat it any differently about the way I drive, things like that. I think I’ll be a little bit more aggressive on restarts and not give up those one or two points when they really, really count. That will change, but for the most part I think I’ll just be a lot more relaxed this time around. Obviously our stuff is really good right now, as good as it was in 2010. What do you got to lose? We’ve never won a championship. We’re going out there trying to win our first. You know, I’m going to race week to week, not think about a championship until I get to Homestead.”
What will it take to win it all and what can you take from the previous six Chase playoffs and apply to this year? Nowadays it’s about having an awesome pit crew, a guy on the box that makes great calls, and fast cars. Other than that, the driver’s got to stay focused and obviously give good feedback. But, there’s lessons learned along the way. This is our seventh straight year. There’s bits and pieces I’ve learned to each and every Chase that you apply to every year that’s after that. So I’ll learn the lessons from previous years and apply them. But, it’s going to take wins. That’s going to be the most important thing. To have wins, you have to have fast cars. So it’s going to be important to make sure we keep on top of that.