Denny Hamlin’s trip through the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs this season has been remarkably free of intensity. The veteran driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has spent the majority of his time already locked into the ensuing round, cashing in on automatic berths in each round-opening race thus far.
The formula worked with wins at Darlington Raceway to kick off the Round of 16 and then Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Round of 12. The prospects for Hamlin doing it all again and winning this Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Texas Motor Speedway are intriguing, and the stakes are higher.
“It’s been interesting. We’ve had after today six playoff races and only two of them have mattered to me,” Hamlin said before last Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. “So it’s just different that we were able to, not take off, but really mentally take off for four weeks in the middle of our playoffs. But that’s the way the format is, and we’ve been very fortunate to win the early races and that’s given us the liberty that we’ve got to go out there and enjoy today and really our focus has been shifted to the Round of 8 and how we can win at those tracks.”
A win Sunday at Texas, Oct. 24 at Kansas Speedway or Oct. 31 at Martinsville Speedway would clinch an automatic spot in the Championship 4 field that will vie for the Cup Series title Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway. Hamlin has been among that final quartet for the last three seasons.
Hamlin’s path has done its part to take the pressure off the elimination points of the 10-race postseason, but hasn’t come with the cost of any complacency creeping in.
“All it does is fuel me to win the first week next week as well because I know how good it’s been,” Hamlin said. “You could be counterintuitive to say, well, then you don’t lose your focus or whatever, but Vegas showed we locked right back in. Our performance has still been very, very good in the playoffs.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a meaningful race in the playoffs or not, so we’ve acquired more points than anybody else this season. Doesn’t matter if it’s full regular season or through the playoffs, we’re still on top. Hopefully we can continue that for four or five more weeks.”
As has been the case in each of the last three seasons — and really, for much of his successful 16-year career in NASCAR’s top series — the question that has dogged Hamlin is the if/when mystery to unlocking a first Cup Series championship. Hamlin said he hasn’t been getting stomach knots over that, either, and a victory at Texas — a track where he’s won three times — would release another pressure valve for his 2021 campaign.
“I certainly feel like there’s less pressure, even though we’ve been at the top all year long,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s been a pretty easy year when it’s come to the pressures of are you going to win the first (championship), or whatever it might be. Each and every week, I give it my best effort and I never go home any week after a race saying I didn’t do my best. I just feel like I’m just going to have to deal with the result because I can’t change it, and as long as I do my job to the best of my ability, that’s going to give us my best shot. I’m fine either way.