Denny Hamlin is NASCAR’s early-season surprise, and that includes surprising himself

Denny Hamlin has won two races already this NASCAR Cup Series season, making him one of the year’s early surprises.
Denny Hamlin has won two races already this NASCAR Cup Series season, making him one of the year’s early surprises. AP

The last time Denny Hamlin felt this confident in a race car on a week-to-week basis?

Like, really confident?

“Probably in 2010, that or 2012,” Hamlin told the Observer via phone on Friday. “Where right from the start of the year, I felt like we’re going to show up and win every single week.”

That is — checks notes — seven years ago? That is, in NASCAR terms and in general, a fairly long time.

Hamlin chuckles. He knows.

“Ha, yeah (it is),” he adds. “For sure.”

That Hamlin hasn’t been as confident in his No. 11 Toyota since 2010, when he won a career-high eight races, or 2012, when he won five, speaks volumes both about his recent past and his current renaissance. He hasn’t won more than three races in any season since 2012, eventually bottoming out with his first winless year in 2018.

Now, through seven races and with Bristol on Sunday, he’s already accrued two victories and trails only Kyle Busch in the Cup Series points standings.

Safe to say 2019 has been a welcome deviation from the norm.

The thing is, this year has been a change for everyone at NASCAR’s highest level. The sanctioning body introduced a new rules package this offseason designed to slow the cars down and stimulate closer pack racing.

Some drivers have grown acquainted with the new rules quicker than others, but perhaps none are already using them to their advantage like Hamlin is. For someone who described the theme of his career wins as when, “we’ve had to come back from something,” it helps a lot that... well, now that comeback isn’t as steep.

“Your gap to the leader is shorter than it would be normally,” Hamlin said of the new package. “That doesn’t mean that passing is easier — just means the distance to the front is less.”

Take Hamlin’s win at Texas last week. In past years, a penalty — or two, like Hamlin suffered — would be a killer. With how far apart cars near the front of the pack could get, it was nearly impossible to track them down after retreating to the rear.

Instead, Hamlin did just that last week, validating his season-opening Daytona 500 win and solidifying himself as this season’s early surprise.

And yes, that includes surprising himself.

“Did I think (we’d be this good)? I hoped,” Hamlin said. “Really in the first 14 years of my career, we’ve never had a start this good. It certainly is exceeding expectations. Not hopes, but expectations.”

That Hamlin has accomplished this start not just with a new rules package, but also a new crew chief, is that much more impressive. Chris Gabehart replaced Hamlin’s longtime crew chief Mike Wheeler this offseason, but the early returns on this new arrangement are undeniable.

Now it’s just a matter of keeping this pace up at Bristol and the following 28 race weekends.

Again, Hamlin chuckles. He knows seven weeks is nothing in the grander scheme of a grinding NASCAR season. But also, he can appreciate success, especially at a rate he hasn’t experienced in years.

“When you go into the year, you have certain expectations,” Hamlin said. “Playoff points you hope to acquire, laps you want to lead, races that you want to win... and then when you win early, I think you can shift those expectations a little bit to a higher bar.

“That’s kind of where we’re at. We feel like we have the speed, and any given week we could win.”

Brendan Marks: (704) 358-5889; @BrendanRMarks
Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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