Denny Hamlin dodges baby duty, stretches fuel for WGI top five

Russell LaBounty/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

With longtime girlfriend Jordan Fish expecting the birth of the couple’s second child any moment, Denny Hamlin wasn’t sure he would even be at Watkins Glen International (WGI) on race day to defend his 2016 win.

But after a baby-free weekend and 90 clean laps, Hamlin emerged from his No. 11 Toyota with a top five.

Hamlin, 36, entered the weekend amid uncertainty. With the arrival of his second child possible at any time, the Virginian had NASCAR veteran Regan Smith at the track to take over driving duties in the No. 11 Toyota should Hamlin need to leave.

When race day came without word from back home, Hamlin proceeded on as usual. From there the defending WGI winner enjoyed a relatively quiet day.

Hamlin made the final round of the morning’s qualifying session before slotting in 11th. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn’t lead laps or dominate any stretches like teammate Kyle Busch and race-winner Martin Truex Jr., but he tallied stage points with a sixth-place run in Stage 2 and slowly rose through the field.

In the closing moments Hamlin was one of many attempting to stretch fuel to the finish. For a time it appeared the 12-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veteran wouldn’t make it, but Hamlin’s machine ultimately had enough fuel to carry him to the finish. He crossed the line in fourth, the last of a Toyota quartet atop the charts.

“Yeah it was a great run for our FedEx Freight team,” Hamlin said. “The Camrys were fast, all of them were today and just had to milk the fuel as much as we could there at the end and make it on fuel. Great run for us. Another fourth place finish – I don’t know how many that is this year but definitely been ringing them off.”

The run proved enough for Hamlin to leave WGI fifth in the championship standings. It also continued two interesting streaks for Hamlin – one of road-course excellence, and one of fourth-place finishes.

Hamlin’s fourth-place finish marked his fourth-consecutive top five in road-course races, stretching back to his runner-up result behind Tony Stewart at Sonoma Raceway in 2016. The finish was also Hamlin’s fifth fourth-place finish in the last eight races – a mark of consistency that should benefit Hamlin when the playoffs arrive next month.

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