DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Last Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, Denny Hamlin was in unfamiliar territory.
He was leading a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on the final lap at a road course.
With a well-executed tap, Hamlin had passed Tony Stewart for the top spot in Turn 7 at the 1.99-mile layout. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota held the point through the esses and expanded his advantage through Turn 1- to approximately three car-lengths.
But Hamlin went wide in Turn 11, the tight hairpin that sets up the run to the finish line. Stewart closed, knocked Hamlin into the outside wall exiting the corner and won the race to change the course of his final season in Sprint Cup racing.
For Stewart, it was a victory of monumental significance.
For Hamlin, it was a lesson learned.
“In my defense… I’ve never been in that position before,” Hamlin said on Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, where, as the winner of the season-opening Daytona 500, he will try to complete a season sweep in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400. “I’ve not been that competitive on road courses, and so I didn’t know the proper defensive move going into that last corner.
“I’d love to have that situation back again, but I really just didn’t know the proper move. I thought I had two car-lengths. Looking back at the video, I probably had three, and that’s kind of the point where you can just run your own corner and maybe be OK, but I knew he was going to throw caution to the wind and I just – I literally looked up and went to my same braking point and I wheel hopped again, and like it was just anomaly.”
Though Hamlin didn’t leave Sonoma with a trophy, he’ll return next year with a newfound sense of confidence.
“I just made a mistake being in a position I’ve never been in before, but now I have confidence that now every road course I go to I can win those races,” Hamlin said. “And so I think that, when I go back to road course, I know that I can win these races—and really going into Sonoma I didn’t go there with a whole lot of aspirations of winning that race.
“I just haven’t been that great on them. I’ve always struggled for speed. It’s not been because of my cars–it’s been because of me–but now I feel like… I’ll get it before my career is over, for sure.”