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Hamlin Hitting Top Gear Heading toward Brickyard after Pocono Victory

There’s a theory that Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams, much like stick-and-ball sports teams, should peak just before the postseason and carry that momentum through the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin isn’t buying it, even after earning his third victory of the season July 28 in the Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway. Hamlin was winless last season yet still made the NASCAR Playoffs, and he has earned more wins at this stage of a season than any since 2010, when he had five wins through the first 21 races.

“I’ll tell you, there's no such thing as peaking too early,” Hamlin said. “If you're winning races, you're giving yourself a buffer in the Playoffs. I think any work we can put in now will just help us in the Playoffs if we do stub our toe and have a bad race.

“Bad races do happen in the Playoffs. It happens to even championship guys. You just have to make sure you have that cushion. That's a cushion I didn't have just a few years ago.”

Hamlin will enter the final race of the Cup Series regular season, the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, without any pressure to win or count points to make the Playoffs. He’s in.

But he will keep the pedal to the metal in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to earn more Playoff points and padding in case calamity strikes during the 10-race postseason. Those extra points could make the difference between disappointment and winning his first Cup title.

“I feel as long as we keep putting the effort in what we're doing, I have as good a shot as any,” Hamlin said. “Wherever the cards fall, they fall. I'm not going to work any harder or any less than I am right now. I feel like I'm doing everything I can to be better.”

That strategy is working.

Hamlin’s three victories this season are just one behind JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for the lead in that category. Hamlin also has 13 top-10 finishes in 21 starts, third on the leaderboard in that category behind two-time Brickyard winner Busch with 18 and defending Cup champion Joey Logano with 14.

That combination of victories and consistency has landed Hamlin in fourth in the Cup Series standings with just five races remaining before the Playoffs. His resurgence also has mirrored that of the JGR team, which has three of its four cars in the top five in the standings. Busch is second, Hamlin fourth and Truex fifth.

The fourth JGR driver, Erik Jones, is 13th in points – qualified so far for the Playoffs – and just missed earning his first victory of the season at Pocono, falling .341 of a second behind his teammate Hamlin. Truex finished third at Pocono, completing a 1-2-3 sweep for the team at the “Tricky Triangle.”

“I kind of look at us as a group, how we match up against everybody else, all of our cars as a group,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “That's kind of how I measure ourselves.

“I think right now we're in pretty good shape. But we know also we're getting ready for the Playoffs. That's a huge deal. Everything changes when you get there.”

Hamlin also was quick to point out the contributions of new crew chief Chris Gabehart toward his success this season. Gabehart replaced Mike Wheeler, who was Hamlin’s crew chief from 2016-18.

The move appeared to be risky on the surface, as this is Gabehart’s first season as a crew chief at the Cup level. Gabehart worked as a crew chief for three seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, helping drivers earn nine victories.

Former ARCA/CRA Super Series champion driver Gabehart has moved seamlessly into the top spot on Hamlin’s pit box. The new partnership between Hamlin and Gabehart started with a victory in the Daytona 500 in February and has produced speed and consistency ever since.

“Everybody works hard,” Hamlin said. “But I think the relationship I have with my crew chief is really good. He sets out a plan for the weekend. He's the head coach. I'm the quarterback. It's my job to execute the plan that he sets forth for me. That's the way it's going to be.

“He's really done a good job of knowing what it takes to win in the Cup Series in his rookie season. He's going to be around for a very long time. I'm glad to be working with him. Obviously he's a short track guy from the roots, similar to what I'm from. All the crew chiefs really I've worked with have had that kind of DNA.

“I just think the chemistry between him and the engineer and myself is really, really good right now. I'm still learning. I'm 38. I'm not 45. I feel like I'm still learning every single week how to be a little bit better.

“That's why it's still kind of a veteran's sport because we have the old experience that we've learned for the first 10 years of our career, even though they've changed the cars, changed the rules, changed everything about it, we have that experience, but we're still learning and getting better, as well.

“Still an old man's sport.”

And “old man” Hamlin will be a definite threat to win the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line, grabbing the team’s sixth victory in the crown jewel race.

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