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Hamlin rebounds between Charlotte races, earns runner-up finish in midweek Cup event

NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 - Qualifying
CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 24: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx SupportSmall Toyota, during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24, 2020 in Concord, North Carolina. Photo: Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

“Every time we come back to a racetrack for the second time, our results are really, really good.”

Denny Hamlin proved that to be true both last week at Darlington Raceway and on Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

With the COVID-19 pandemic changing up the status-quo, after seven postponed or cancelled events, NASCAR has now made up four NASCAR Cup Series events in twelve days by running only two tracks, two races a piece.

Last week at Darlington, Hamlin claimed the checkers in the second of the two make-up races that was run on Wednesday night.

On Thursday night, Hamlin charged from the back of the field to finish runner-up to Chase Elliott in the ALSCO Uniforms 500 at Charlotte.

“We’re making good adjustments. I had a really good car, and just needed to be a little better in the short run there.”

Hamlin never got to the lead, nor did he earn any stage points, but was one of the fastest cars at the end, as he made his way around Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, and Ryan Blaney in the closing laps to claim the second spot.

“Eventually the air pressure built up enough to where it got off the race track. The pit crew just did a phenomenal job picking up a bunch of spots. Our whole FedEx team prepared a good car.”

***

In the first race of the week at Charlotte, the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night, Hamlin didn’t even get to start when the green flag dropped.

Two pieces of tungsten ballast fell out of the back of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota, and by rule, NASCAR mandated that the weight be replaced and secured before returning to the track.

The resulting repair put Hamlin eight laps down off the bat, and he never was able to recover, as he finished seven laps down in 29th place.

To make matters worse, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, his car chief Brandon Griffeth, and his engineer Scott Simmons were suspended for four races for the safety violation.

Sam McAulay took over the crew chief duties in Gabehart’s absence, while Eric Phillips was able to fill the car chief slot, and Scott Eldridge joined the road crew.

“One advantage that we did have was we left Eric at the race shop to prepare the cars before the whole weight thing happened, and because we had depth, we had essentially two car chiefs on our team,” Hamlin told reporters post-race on the NASCAR Zoom conference.

“Brandon was our car chief the year before, in 2018, Eric came on in 2019, and Brandon never left. So he just — the team player he is, he stepped aside and let Eric take over the car chiefing role last year, but we had two car chiefs, so we left one at the race shop, and now we just switched them essentially when we had the suspension.”

***

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota 500
Hamlin was all smiles last week at Darlington. The smile was nowhere to be found on Sunday after a dismal 600 miles at Charlotte. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Similar to the Darlington races last week, NASCAR decided upon setting their second race at Charlotte this week by the results of the first race, combined with a Top 20 invert.

Hamlin’s poor result on Sunday meant a 29th place start for the next one, originally slated for Wednesday night, but postponed to Thursday after inclement weather.

The first stage was halted part-way due to lightning strikes in the area. After just over an hour under the red-flag, the race resumed, and Hamlin had only made it up to 23rd place.

By the end of the first stage, Hamlin managed to pass his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr, and wound up 21st.

Hamlin’s pit crew gained him five positions to start 16th on the restart for the second stage.

Passing was tough all night, but in the 60 lap stage, Hamlin managed to get all he could, and ended up 12th by the end of it.

Another five spots gained during the stage break, Hamlin restarted the final stage from the seventh position. He broke into the Top 5 for the first time on lap 136, but a few laps later, the final caution flag flew for a spin involving Timmy Hill.

The final pit stop continued the trend, with another three spots gained, which placed Hamlin in second spot for the final restart.

“We started up front there when the pit crew got us out second there and ideally we would have stayed in front. I knew the 4 (Kevin Harvick), his car typically drops like a rock in the long run. We made a good run at it, but it was just too late.”

Harvick led the field back to the final restart, while Elliott, Blaney, and Stenhouse Jr. were able to find their way around Hamlin quickly.

Hamlin rode in fifth for a good portion of the final run, but he had saved his tires for the last stretch of the race.

Hamlin got around Harvick to move up to fourth, then around Stenhouse Jr for third. In the final couple of laps, he managed to get by Blaney.

If the race were a few laps longer, he might have even been able to close in on the winner, Elliott.

Regardless, Hamlin exits Charlotte week with some confidence, and now heads to Bristol Motor Speedway to defend his victory there from the summer of 2019.

“Every time we go to a racetrack the second time, the results are amazing. We’re making the right adjustments, we’re doing the right things, and that’s good because the end of the year in the playoffs you’re going back to racetracks for the second time, and that’s when we need to run well, and that’s what got us to the Final Four last year.”

SOURCES:
NASCAR Media
Toyota Racing
NASCAR on FOX

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Justin Melillo View All

Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com

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