HOMESTEAD, Fla – Denny Hamlin and his crew chief Chris Gabehart thought they were playing with house money this weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. See, Hamlin didn’t feel any pressure on his shoulders. He had been here before but wasn’t as prepared to finish as he was now.
Hamlin, called this his best shot at ever winning a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. He won the season opening Daytona 500. He won the Bristol Night Race. He won six times in 35 starts, second most among all drivers. He had career highs in top fives and top 10 finishes for a single season.
He hit a walk off home run last weekend in Phoenix with a dominating victory. That race was pressure packed for them. They had a late pit call which could have worked against them, but they still won and reached the final four for the first time since 2014.
That was their Homestead. A must win and they pulled it off. This weekend, another must win, well they were tested already in this. They knew what they had to do.
With qualifying being canceled due to both practice sessions being rained out on Friday and NASCAR electing to replacing qualifying with one 50 minute practice on Saturday, Hamlin would start his No. 11 Toyota on the pole.
It was shaping up to be his year. A pole, momentum and having a trend that has seen the last five years see five different race winners at Homestead meaning five different champions. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick joined Hamlin in the Championship 4 and they had all already won titles in that time frame.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, his car was a handful in the early portions of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. He was quickly passed for the lead at the start and would fade back from there. The Virginia native finished fifth in both stages as they chased the race car all day.
But, his car was setup for when the sun set and wouldn’t you know it, with the sun now turned to moon fall, the final stage started with Hamlin storming his way to the lead. He’d run in the top three from there until a costly mistake on adding too much tape to the front of his car on their final pit stop dashed their championship hopes.
With so much tape added, Hamlin’s car began to overheat. It got so bad, they’d have to pit to take the tape back off. That unscheduled stop took them from the top three to 19th, one lap off pace.
Hamlin, needed a caution. He never got it. While he did race to unlap himself, he still only finished 10th, which was worst among the four championship eligible drivers.
It was his best finish in the final standings since 2014 (3rd). He was ninth in 2015, sixth in 2016 and 2017 and 11th last year. Following a 2018 season where he failed to reach victory lane, he was on the hot seat this year.
Erik Jones’ contract was up at seasons end but JGR didn’t want to lose him. Christopher Bell was a championship caliber driver in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and needed a place to move up to on the Cup level. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch had contracts past 2019.
Hamlin was in a prove it season. He crashed in Speedweeks which drew harsh criticism from team owner Joe Gibbs. Hamlin, felt it. He backed that up with winning the season opener and took off from there.
So, to finish fourth in the final standings is a disappointment, it’s a career altering season though for which Hamlin can bounce back from in 2020.