Through his long career, when Denny Hamlin would be quizzed by fans on what his least favorite track was, he always had an easy answer: Dover.
“I love the track, but I haven’t been very good here,” Hamlin said. “I always felt like a fifth-place driver here.”
After Saturday’s performance, maybe that answer will change in the future.
Hamlin swept the first two stages and then passed two teammates down the stretch, including one with less than 10 laps remaining, to win the “Drydene 311” NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway.
Driving the No. 11 Toyota, Hamlin led a Joe Gibbs Racing sweep of the top three positions, with teammates Martin Truex Jr. placing second and Kyle Busch taking third. Hamlin passed Truex on Lap 303 and pulled away to win by 1.179 seconds for his first Dover victory, his sixth of the season and 43rd of his career.
“There’s been no year that’s been like this,” Hamlin said. “We’re rolling right now and we’re rolling at tracks that we’re not typically great at.
“I want to lock in as many playoff points as possible and give myself a shot. I know we are a championship team, regardless of whether we have the trophy or not.”
Hamlin completed the 311-mile race in 2 hours, 30 minutes and 3 seconds with an average speed of 124.359 mph. While success hasn’t come easy for Hamlin at Dover, learning from Truex and Busch (six Dover wins combined) has helped him become more competitive on the high-banked, one-mile concrete oval.
“I’ve got teammates that are the best in the business when it comes to this track,” Hamlin said. “My style of driving typically doesn’t fit this racetrack. I’ve had to adapt.”
After winning Stage 2, Hamlin, who led a race-high 115 laps, came off pit road third and was quickly fourth after the restart. Gradually, patiently, Hamlin maneuvered through the field.
“We were better but it took us that whole last stage to get there,” Hamlin said. “I could see I was gaining on them. We just kept pushing and pushing.”
The race lead changed 15 times among 10 drivers, with Truex leading 88 laps and Austin Dillon pacing 49 before ending up 15th. Twelve drivers finished on the lead lap, headed by the Joe Gibbs Racing trio.
“Joe Gibbs Racing has a tremendous fleet of drivers, great resources and equipment – we’re certainly capable of it,” said Christopher Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief. “This one ranks pretty high. To sweep the three stages here and pass both of our teammates to get there is gratifying.”
Hamlin will have quick opportunity to be a repeat winner as part of the “Drydene Doubleheader Weekend” Sunday at 4 p.m. in the “Drydene 311” NASCAR Cup Series race (NBCSN) – the final race of the Monster Mile’s six-race weekend.
Hamlin will start 20th on Sunday, but no matter his result in the weekend finale, Hamlin knows he will have a new friend with him when he departs Delaware.
“The Monster Trophy is very, very cool,” said Hamlin, who also has two Xfinity Series wins at Dover. “I’ve always been envious of those that had them.”