Hamlin stays red-hot with Gateway runner-up, keeps top-five streak alive

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

MADISON, Ill. – It’s become almost tradition for 20-year NASCAR Cup Series veteran Denny Hamlin to call his shot as the favorite for his first elusive championship with each passing season, but could his 2024 campaign actually be where it all comes together?

In what was a constant uphill battle for most every team, outside of maybe race winner Austin Cindric, Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart kept their heads down, stuck to their plan, and came out of World Wide Technology Raceway with a runner-up finish and their fifth consecutive top-five – a streak that began with his series-best third win of the season at Dover Motor Speedway.

Hamlin started the 240-lap race from sixth, but due to varying strategies, fell to as low as 30th at one point, at a track where passing is incredibly hard to come by. With a little help from Ryan Blaney, who ran out of fuel as the leader after taking the white flag, and teammate Christopher Bell who ran into engine issues as the leader with 19 to go, the driver of the No. 11 picked up the 39th second-place finish of his Cup career.

“I want to win every week, so it’s tough feeling not great about a second-place finish,” Hamlin said after the race. “But it’s just a testament to how strong our team is when we expect to be more than that.

“It was hard to pass, for sure,” Hamlin added. “There wasn’t a ton of fire-off speed versus where you ended. I think it looked like about a half-a-second max of fall-off after about 70 laps or something like that. Just not enough fall-off to really have a lot of passing today, so strategy was going to be a big deal, and then obviously attrition.”

The last time Hamlin went on such a streak of five top-fives in a row was back in 2021, where he actually scored six straight. This was the last year he made the Championship 4, and his third-place finish in the standings was the best since 2014.

What makes this specific run so impressive – outside of his ability to stand the test of time at 43 years old – is the fact he was able to keep momentum rolling through a rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600. Additionally, if you include the All-Star Race exhibition, he’s riding six consecutive top-fives.

Through 15 starts, Hamlin is the points leader. He inherited the top-spot from Kyle Larson, who missed the crown-jewel event at Charlotte Motor Speedway to race in the Indianapolis 500, but don’t think anything was just given to him.

In addition to being tied for most wins in the series at three with William Byron, his seven top-five are also tops in Cup with Brad Keselowski, who finished behind him in third in the Enjoy Illinois 300.

Hamlin has also led laps in all but two races this season, leaving him with second-most led behind Larson. In finishing runner-up at Gateway, he also passed teammate Martin Truex Jr. for second-best average finish at 11.5, after a tire failure relegated him to a 34th-place day.

The driver of the No. 11 will have his work cut out for him when the Cup Series makes its way to Wine Country and Sonoma Raceway next weekend. Hamlin’s failed to finish above 31st in the Next-Gen car at the 1.99-mile California road course, and he only has seven top-10s with no wins in 17 starts.

Hamlin has been vocal over the past two seasons about road courses being the final frontier he and his team must conquer in the seventh-generation car. After a respectable 14th-place finish at Circuit of the Americas earlier this year, things could be trending in the right direction for the championship hopeful.

Last year, Hamlin started from the pole at Sonoma and led a second-best 33 laps before crashing on the frontstretch with 17 to go, as his teammate Truex won. When he and the Cup Series get to Northern California for the Toyota / Save Mart 350, it will likely race like a brand-new track, following a recent repave, which is said to induce more speed from those who tested the surface.

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