RICHMOND, Va. — Denny Hamlin, in desperate need of a victory, had no issues with settling for second behind teammate Kyle Busch at Richmond International Raceway.
Why not? The start of the season has been so bad for Hamlin, an eight-race winner last season and the runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the final points standings, that coming in second was a huge step for the slumping driver.
His finish at his home track was his best this season, first top-five, and only his second top-10 in nine races.
“I’m ecstatic, to be honest with you,” he said after Saturday night’s race. “You can’t be mad at second place. Yeah, I want to win, trust me. It burns that you didn’t win. But how we didn’t win I can live with.
Hamlin didn’t win because he’d shared so much information over the years in Joe Gibbs Racing debriefs that it had helped Busch improve at Richmond. Busch’s victory Saturday night was his third consecutive in Richmond’s spring race, and he and Hamlin have combined to win the last five races at the short track.
Busch readily admitted that Hamlin’s tutorials have helped him immensely, and said there was something specific he picked up from Hamlin’s victory last September that helped him beat his teammate this time around.
“Denny did do a nice job at helping me here a little bit last fall,” Busch said. “I used the information. I kind of used it all throughout the race.”
Considering Hamlin has parlayed Busch’s insider information into improving his own performance on intermediate tracks, he understood that being a good teammate is part of the game and for the betterment of JGR — even it was Busch that got to Victory Lane.
But there was also a hope that in coming close to grabbing his first win of the season, Hamlin might have snapped out of the slump he’s been in since losing his first Sprint Cup title in last year’s finale. The 15-point lead he took into the final race was swallowed up by Johnson, who ended up winning his fifth consecutive title by 39 points over Hamlin.
It sent Hamlin into a funk he carried through the offseason, but vowed to break out of before the new season began. Although his mood was better, his performance was way off.
Most glaring was a 12th-place finish at Martinsville, where he’d won three straight races, and a 15th at Texas, where he won both of last season’s races. It led to an erroneous report this week that a swapping of crews for Hamlin and Joey Logano was “imminent,” something everyone at JGR strongly rebuked. Hamlin has stood by crew chief Mike Ford, and JGR management believes strongly that Ford is the best man for Hamlin.
“I think they have faith in each other,” said team president J.D. Gibbs, who acknowledged the slow start to the season had worn on the No. 11 team.
“We’ve been through it with all of our drivers over the years. So I think to have a good run at a place where you should run well, I think that was encouraging. I think overall that gives them a little momentum.”
Next up is Saturday night’s race at Darlington Raceway, where Hamlin won last season, and a test to see if Richmond really was the breakthrough he needed. Hamlin had a very strong weekend, winning his charity race at RIR on Thursday night, then picking up the win in the Nationwide Series race on Friday night.
Although his second-place finish in the main event didn’t help him in the standings — he’s still ranked 17th — he’s hopeful that his pace on the track will pick up from here forward.
“Usually it’s about five, six races before we kind of get going,” Hamlin said. “Maybe it’s just this year … maybe it’s taken us a few extra races. Hopefully this is the point in which we turn it around.”