The results have been very good to near excellent. The kind where you think Denny Hamlin is on the cusp of advancing out of the NASCAR Cup Series playoff semifinals, having finished seventh at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago, followed by a third Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Yet, Hamlin enters Sunday’s elimination race at Phoenix Raceway on the wrong side of the cut line, facing the distinct possibility that despite thus far turning in a superb semifinal round performance, it still may not be good enough to get him to the championship final.
Hamlin trails Brad Keselowski by 19 points for the final transfer spot. A deficit that, barring a winning, gives Keselowski control of his playoff fortune as Hamlin would otherwise need misfortune to strike Keselowski to overcome the points gap.
If it sounds like all too familiar territory for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, it’s because it is. Last year, Hamlin averaged a 6.3 average finish in the semifinals, but when the checkered flag waved at Phoenix, he found himself six points of short of teammate Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot.
“We probably need to win, most likely, which is amazing,” Hamlin said after Texas. “It's the second year in a row [in] the third round where I average [about] a top-five finish, and that ain't going to be good enough.
“It needs to be better. But it's about winning races. That's what we'll go next week and try to do."
NASCAR’s playoff format can be cruel. Winning is the only way to cement your status in the next bracket, and even stringing together three consecutive outstanding finishes within a round still may not be enough. And that failure to win in key moments is why a first-ever championship continues to elude Hamlin, whose 31 careers wins is fifth-best among drivers, trailing Jimmie Johnson (83 wins), Kyle Busch (43), Matt Kenseth (38) and Kevin Harvick (37), all of whom have a championship on their résumés.
Very good will only get you so far in a format designed to incentivize drivers to up their game when the pressure intensifies. When they do, they’re justly rewarded.
But since NASCAR went to a multi-round, elimination format in 2014, Hamlin has just a single playoff victory, coming in the Round 1 opener at Chicagoland Speedway in 2015. When he’s needed a win on other occasions, he hasn’t come through.
The latest examples of Hamlin’s near-misses in the postseason where a pivotal win slipped away occurred at Martinsville and Texas. He was leading late and in contention to emerge with a victory at both races -- a win in either would’ve locked him into one of four available spots in the championship final next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- but instead Busch and Harvick punched their tickets.
If Sunday is in fact the end of his playoff run, how Martinsville unfolded will especially cause Hamlin to rue his decision-making. Directly behind leader Chase Elliott with two regulation laps remaining, it was obvious to all what Hamlin was going to do in an attempt to pass Elliott -- the classic short track bump-and-run maneuver where he would nudge Elliott out of the groove, thereby allowing himself to go by unimpeded and take the win.
Instead of a light shove, though, an overaggressive Hamlin slammed into the rear of the No. 24 Chevrolet. The contact sent Elliott spinning into the wall and the race into overtime. On the subsequent lap, Hamlin found himself in the same position Elliott had been in, and with a championship round berth on the line, Busch didn’t hesitate to move aside his teammate for the win. Hamlin slid to seventh.
A miscalculation that may ultimately be the defining moment of Hamlin’s postseason. A race he should’ve won but didn’t and made all the more frustrating because were he to move onto Homestead with his title hopes intact, he stands to be a favorite. Twice he’s won at the South Florida track and his 10.6 average finish ranks third best among full-time Cup Series drivers, which accompanied with the prowess of the Toyotas on intermediate-sized speedways further buoys his chances.
It is just that qualifying for the championship final is once again proving difficult.