Hamlin looking for season turnaround with repeat victory at Loudon

Defending New Hampshire Motor Speedway race winner Denny Hamlin is hoping that the good vibes and his excellent record at the track will translate into a positive season turnaround this weekend.

The perennial Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship player is smarting from a rough month of competition – multiple races starting from the rear of the grid and disappointing results at the checkered flag. Disappointing for this No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team that is far more accustomed to hoisting trophies and challenging in the playoffs than overcoming the kind of early season start he’s had this season.

“The last month has probably been one of the toughest in my years (at the Cup level),’’ Hamlin, 37, said Friday afternoon. “It’s just been really bad results. Not that we’ve necessarily run bad or had bad speed, just terrible results. … We need to start winning right now, running the top-five, leading more laps and get to work on this season and try to make sure that we put ourselves in contention at the end.’’

His confidence – in himself and veteran team – still remains high, no matter the frustrating summer showings. He’s started 36th or worse in two of the last four races – and racing from the rear of the field automatically creates a daunting challenge. Yet his talent and the team’s effort has kept him solidly among the playoff field. He’s ranked ninth heading into Sunday’s race.

Hamlin has a healthy 10 top-10 finishes through the opening 19 races – a better than 50 percent yield. He has six top-fives as well – including a season best three third place efforts (Daytona, Richmond, Charlotte). He’s had only two top-10s in the last six races, however.

“It doesn’t matter how many points those other guys accrue,’’ Hamlin said. “If we can win at Texas, Phoenix or Martinsville – we’re part of the Championship Four and could easily knock one of those guys out and all the hard work that they’ve put in through the entire year.’’

Sunday’s Foxwoods Casino 301 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is prime opportunity. And Hamlin knows it.

He is in elite company as a three-time race winner (2017, 2012, 2007) at the “Magic Mile.”  No active driver has won at the track more. He has three top-10 finishes in the last five races and hasn’t started worse than seventh since 2013.

But Hamlin comes into the race feeling understandably a bit behind on the season. Three drivers – Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (five), Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick (five) and fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. (four) have won 14 of the 19 races thus far.

Truex, in particular, has been brilliant at New Hampshire, but winless despite leading a series best 513 laps in the last four races here. Hamlin knows he’s got to step up his game and step it up now.

He fully admits he’s ready to have his name thrown into the championship favorite mix – the party crasher to the “Big Three” getting all the early season attention.

“I don’t think we’ve been at that level to even be talked about at this point,’’ he said. “I think we’ve got to get better in a lot of different aspects. It’s agitating knowing that we’re capable of doing that if we put everything together, but until we do it, they deserve all the press they’ve gotten.”

And this could be the week Hamlin inserts himself in the mix.

“Certainly when you come to these race tracks, for us personally, it feels like this is a track that we certainly can win at and I’ve got a great feel for it no matter where we’re running or what cars that we’re running,’’ Hamlin said. “Certainly from my aspect, there’s not an advantage, but there’s certainly a level of comfort.

“When you come here, you know exactly what you’re looking for.’’

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