By Dustin Albino

WATKINS GLEN, NY — Denny Hamlin has proven to be a consistent qualifier on road courses during the 2023 season. That speed didn‘t always transfer over to race trim. 

The fact Hamlin won three of the past four pole awards on road courses (Sonoma Raceway, the Chicago Street Course and Watkins Glen International) was a gigantic uptick from the 2022 season when Toyota struggled mightily on road courses. Still, the No. 11 team had yet to crack the top 10 in the final rundown in 10 road course starts since the Cup Series switched to the Next Gen car. 

But if you look at Hamlin‘s stats at Watkins Glen International, one would see he‘s steadily consistent. In the last six races at the famed road course, he had a quartet of top five efforts, including his lone win while turning left and right in 2016. 

Hamlin led the opening three laps in Sunday‘s Go Bowling at The Glen before Michael McDowell squeezed by for the top spot. William Byron took advantage of Hamlin‘s loss in momentum to get by for second, dropping the No. 11 car to third. That‘s where Hamlin remained for the rest of the stage. 

“It‘s just me being a little more hesitant to start the race and Michael being on kill because he‘s so dialed in on his skill set,” Hamlin said of losing the lead. “It‘s going to take me a little time to get there.”

When McDowell had to serve a pass-through penalty for driving through too many pit boxes, Hamlin moved to second where he finished the second stage, earning 16 valuable stage points in his quest of winning the regular season championship. 

Over the final half of the race, Hamlin remained in second, holding off his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs, as well as road course ace AJ Allmendinger. It took 11 tries, but Hamlin now has a top 10 on a road course — a top five at that — in the Next Gen era. 

“I felt good about it,” Hamlin said of his race. “I think it‘s the first time I‘ve put together a full race in the Next Gen car on a road course. Happy about it. I was able to string together competitive laps most laps, I just gave up track position early and that was it.

“I‘ve been qualifying well in the Next Gen on road courses, but haven‘t been able to put together an entire race of laps. I think today was the first time I did.”

Hamlin admits to putting an added emphasis on running competitively on road courses. He likes to gauge himself based on how Tyler Reddick runs, as Reddick is a three-time winner on road courses over the last two seasons. 

On Sunday, Hamlin straight up outran Reddick. 

“It‘s a bigger part of our schedule now, so you have to. It forces you to,” Hamlin said. “I never want to show up to a racetrack and not think I can win. That‘s when I will quit, is when I know I can‘t win. I still feel like every week that I show up, I can.” 

In finishing second and scoring stage points, Hamlin chopped 21 points from Martin Truex Jr.‘s regular season championship lead. Entering the cutoff race at Daytona International Speedway, he sits 39 points back at a track he‘s had plenty of success at.

As long as the No. 11 team executes throughout the race and scores stage points, Hamlin believes he has a shot of making up that lost ground which awards 15 playoff points. 

“[Truex] have a bad day, [we] have a good day and we can make it interesting,” Hamlin said. 

In five road course races this season, which includes a DNF at Sonoma after wrecking out on the frontstretch and smacking the wall early in the Chicago race, Hamlin has improved his average finish to 16.8. Last season, his average finish was 18.8.

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