DARLINGTON, S.C. – Denny Hamlin joined a huddle of his crew members on pit road at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night (Sept. 3) where he displayed what went wrong with his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota during the NASCAR Cup Series Southern 500.
After a moment, however, Hamlin fell silent and hung his head, and after a brief pause, sighed a loud “Fuck!”
It was the same scene for likely many JGR cars on Sunday night, as all three of the team’s cars competing in the playoffs experienced struggles in the first round of their 2023 championship bid. Both Hamlin’s teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell shared problems resulted in each of them finishing outside of the top 15.
It had begun on Saturday during qualifying when Truex smacked the wall during his time trial run resulting in a 31st-place starting position.
Both this year’s Cup Series Regular Season Champion and his crew chief James Small knew they had to overcome a huge deficit if they were to start the playoff right.
“We got in the wall yesterday, and we thought we had it all right,” Small told Frontstretch. “Maybe we didn’t. Maybe that’s where we missed it.”
And at first, they were. Truex had cracked the top 15 near the midway point of the race and appeared to be creeping his way into contention at the same track where he has two previous wins.
That is until lap 154 when he had to enter pit road again for a loose wheel.
“The car wasn’t really balanced that great,” Small said. “But it was still trucking along the road.
“Then we had to come back on the green for a loose right rear wheel, which then, we were stuck down a lap.”
After the mistake put him a couple laps down, Truex was less than pleased.
After taking the wave around and returning to the lead lap, Truex still could never mount an effort after making contact with the wall that knocked the car out of balance.
Truex declined to comment.
“We were able to wave around,” Small said. “But we hit on to the fence again a couple of times. Just it was just a bad day. The balance was off.
“We managed to get back on the lead lap again and somehow finish 18th, which is probably better than where we thought we would be at a certain point.”
The No. 19 could only rebound to finish 18th when it was all said and done, and after starting the event as the shared first seed in the playoffs, he now sits 6th in the standings only 25 points ahead of the cutline.
His teammate Bell’s night had started off better.
Unlike Truex, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota had started his Sunday night in front of the field after winning the pole. The Oklahoma native led 40 laps at first, too.
However, much like Truex, Bell made contact with the wall that knocked his car out of balance. To make matters worse, he continuously experienced slow pit stops that had cost him multiple spots.
Bell’s damage was unrecoverable and forced him to not be a factor for most of the night.
“I just got in the marbles in turn 2 and damaged the car early,” Bell said post-race. “That was pretty much the story of our night.”
Until the caution on lap 332 that saw fellow playoff driver Michael McDowell pinning him against the outside wall.
Thankfully, the damage had mostly been done and didn’t make his night much worse. The No. 20 team finished 23rd and, even more alarming, enters Kansas Speedway with only a one-point cushion between he and elimination.
“We have speed a lot,” Bell said. “I know that Kansas we’re going to be fast again. That’s been a really good racetrack for Toyota. … We just got to put it all together.”
Then there was perhaps the most tragic story of the JGR saga – that of Hamlin.
The No. 11 wasn’t simply good on Sunday, he was flying.
The Virginian had swept both stages one and two and led 177 laps out of the 367 ran on the 1.33-mile racetrack, which was only two laps shy of his career record he set there in his sophomore Cup season in 2007.
But in a late-race green flag pit stop cycle, Hamlin re-entered the circuit with an uneasy feeling in the steering wheel.
“I felt a loose wheel,” Hamlin said on pit road. “It’s really tough to tell in anything, but they looked, and it looked like the left rear was still tightening as we were gone.
“It was close enough to where it didn’t matter what I felt. I was going to crash if I kept going.”
Hamlin returned to pit road, sure there was a loose wheel present. However, after rejoining the track, the crew could not find the culprit. Hamlin went two laps down afterward, and with such a short amount of time left, could not make his way back into the lead lap.
The driver of the No. 11 could only muster a 25th-place finish – the worst out of the JGR playoff trio and far away from the dominant performance he was poised to make.
On the bright side, Hamlin’s two stage wins gave him enough points to build a healthy cushion for himself in fifth in the standings with a 27-point difference to 13th.
Even better for Hamlin, next week he will return to the same track he won at in May at Kansas.
“We think we’re going to win every week,” Hamlin said. “There’s not one week where I show up, and I don’t think I’m going to win.
“But you got to play the game, and sometimes, when you play the game, it doesn’t work out the way you plan.”
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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