RICHMOND, Va. — Denny Hamlin would love to think that a visit to his home track will produce a finish that finally gets his season heading in the right direction.
The problem for Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates and seemingly all the drivers in Toyotas is they are having a difficult time figuring out NASCAR's Next Gen car, making their extensive success at Richmond Raceway nearly meaningless.
Hamlin stands 22nd in points after six races and has failed to finish three races. With trying to figure out the new car, every week is like starting over.
“We are decent, but we are not where we have been for the last three years. We are trying to find that point where we are good, and we can build off of that,” he said.
Teammate Martin Truex Jr., who won on the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval last fall, feels coming to Richmond means arriving with expectations but without much reason for any because everything is different with the new car.
“Whatever you think you knew and the way you thought about these tracks before and the way you approach these things -– just forget about it, because this is a whole new ballgame with this car and everything,” he said. “Forget everything you knew in the past and focus on what it takes to make this thing go, which we are still trying to figure out.”
Truex's team has figured out enough to finish in the top 10 three times in the first six races, good for seventh in the point standings. Hamlin, who had 25 top-10 runs in 36 races last year, has yet to record any.
But, he said, it's not time to panic.
“I think you can catapult up the standings really, really quickly,” he said. "If you have a couple solid weeks where we don’t get crashed or cause a crash, those things add up. We’re not happy with where our speed is at, for sure, but certainly we are not a 22nd-place team. Am I worried about making the playoffs, if that is what you are asking? No.”
Hamlin's three Gibbs teammates qualified in the top 10 for Sunday's race, with Kyle Busch starting third, Truex sixth and Christopher Bell ninth. Hamlin will start 13th.
Alex Bowman said the new car allows for more contact with less impact on the performance of the machine, a point Ross Chastain proved last weekend by beating and banging his way to victory on the road course in Texas.
“I think you can definitely run into stuff that would have ended your day in the past,” Bowman said Saturday. “We kind of got sandwiched in between a bunch of cars on a restart last week; drove straight into somebody and it would have completely ended our day last year.”
Hamlin made note of the changing culture on Twitter this week, pointing out that “Everyone runs over everyone. Doesn’t matter if it’s for 1st or 10th," but allowed Saturday that he's not done much to dissuade that approach.
“I think the win at all costs, I think they’ve seen that the cost is worth it because there really is no cost,” Hamlin said of drivers bumping others for position. “I’m guilty there, too. You know, I got spun out of the lead two races last year. One cost us the regular-season championship. I haven’t done anything about it. So maybe that’s a message to the competitors.”
Bowman, and others, think the playoff format that awards drivers a spot in the 10-race playoffs to end the season all but encourages physical driving.
“I think if there’s a reason and you have to put your finger on it, it would be the playoff format,” Bowman said. "How much winning matters and sometimes you can overcome those guys hating you for that trophy.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Chase Elliott, the lone Hendrick driver without a win so far this season, is the FanDuel Sportsbook favorite. Chevrolet drivers have won four of the last five races. ... Aric Almirola is eighth in points but is the only driver to have completed all 1,381 laps run in the first six races. ... All three of NASCAR’s top series will be in Virginia next weekend, and on short tracks, with a Truck-Xfinity-Cup series tripleheader scheduled at Martinsville Speedway.