Hamlin comes up short at Richmond

With one notable performance exception, Denny Hamlin made the absolute most of back-to-back short-track races in his home state, leading the most laps at each Martinsville Speedway last week and in Sunday’s stop at Richmond Raceway. In both instances, though, his dominance was not rewarded with his first checkered flag of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season.

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The circuit’s points leader ended the afternoon as the runner-up in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400, surrendering the lead for the final 10 laps to a suddenly surging Alex Bowman. The outcome marked Hamlin’s eighth top-five finish in nine races this season, but his remarkable consistency hasn’t yielded a victory.

“Yeah, we should have won,” Hamlin said post-race. “Certainly the 48 (Bowman) wasn’t better than us all day. Just got to lead the last lap. You’ve got to figure out how to lead the last lap, that’s pretty much all that matters. Today, I don’t know if we had a dominant car. It was definitely top two.”

Hamlin established the strength in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota early, sweeping both stages and trading the lead with another contending teammate in Martin Truex Jr. But his control of the race began to slip down the stretch as Joey Logano briefly took command on a long green-flag run in Stage 3.

Hamlin regained the top spot with speedy pit service in the No. 11 team’s final stop, edging Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford to the pit exit by half a car-length. But shortly after the green flag flew for the final restart, Bowman bolted on by and stretched his lead to the finish.

“We just didn’t take off very good there,” Hamlin said of the final stint. “Definitely was worse when our car took off after the restart. The 48 had his tires pumped up, he was able to take off there, get the lead, build a lead big enough I didn’t have enough time to get back to him.”

Hamlin led 207 laps Sunday at Richmond, one week after pacing 276 of the 500 laps and fading to third at another friendly venue in Martinsville. He has led more than half the laps at Richmond on five occasions but prevailed on only two of those dominant days.

With the sting from Sunday still fresh, the irritation was evident post-race from a driver who won seven times in 2020 and six times the year before.

“Yeah, I mean, there’s frustration, for sure,” Hamlin said. “But it doesn’t change my attitude or work ethic. I’m going to work just as hard to win next week and the week after that. You’re a competitor, you want to win. Especially when you have a great opportunity to win. It just didn’t happen. I just got to digest it, look at it and see where we could have been a little bit better. But ultimately there’s nothing I can do. My effort was as high as it could be. There’s nothing that’s glaring that I feel like I could have or should have done different.”

Even with the losses starting to mount and Bowman hoisting the trophy in Victory Lane, Hamlin was able to take some solace in his current lot, leading the tour by a whopping 81 points more than second-place Truex. In fact, he suggested he wouldn’t trade places with Bowman, who has scratched the win column but hasn’t demonstrated the week-in, week-out performance JGR’s No. 11 bunch has produced so far.

“I don’t care that he’s got a win,” Hamlin said. “We’re smashing everyone. I’d still rather be where I’m at.”