By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
Denny Hamlin again showed he will be a championship contender this season on Sunday at Martinsville.
Hamlin had the lead late but with the continuous pressure by eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. and lapped traffic, he didn’t have enough to hold onto the lead.
“That’s just the cards we were dealt,” said Hamlin. “We had a really good short-run car. We just didn’t have a good long-run car. We saved a set of tires – we had the tire advantage – but we couldn’t get the car to turn on the long run. That was the bugaboo, you could say, but overall, the FedEx Camry team performed well. We had a really fast car for 20 laps or so, and then it would just kind of go away. Fortunate for us, we had a great day and had ourselves a shot at it, but just wasn’t quite good enough.
We had a fast car for 20 or 25 laps especially, but after that our car just faded and didn’t have the grip that the 12 (Ryan Blaney) or certainly the 9 (Chase Elliott) and the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) had there at the end. Gave ourselves a shot by getting that restart and getting around them, but inevitably we just didn’t have a fast enough car after 30 laps.”
Hamlin looked like the Hamlin of old Sunday at a track he’s had much success at. With five wins, he will always be a favorite as the series heads to the “paperclip” but his last victory at Martinsville came in 2015. Hamlin led 276 of the 500 laps Sunday, the second-most he’s ever led at Martinsville. In 2009, Hamlin led 296 laps en-route to a second-place finish. From the 2015 fall race to last fall, Hamlin led a combined 296 laps at Martinsville. He was rather close to that number in just one race on Sunday coming up just 20 laps short.
The contender in Hamlin is there but just not to his peak just yet. Hamlin has been rather close to a victory a few times this season only finishing outside the top-five once. With his performance this season, he’s eighth in NASCAR Cup Series Playoff points, the best of the non-winners. His third-place finish was his third of 2021 and ties his season-best finish.
“We just continue to run top-three every single week,” added Hamlin. “Every stage, every finish – we’re right there. We just need to get a little better. We’re barely missing it. We led a lot of laps and that’s because our competitors that we were racing against, had some issues. We had a good short-run car that could keep us upfront on the restarts. Overall, a lot to learn.”
The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Richmond next weekend for the Toyota Owners 400. Another track that Hamlin has been successful at, just not in a while. He has three career victories at Richmond, the latest of which coming in 2016. He led 45 laps last season but was relegated to a 12th place finish. Will Richmond be where Hamlin earns his first victory of 2021?
Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography