Hamlin comfortable with role as a Playoff favorite

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - AUGUST 30: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Darlington Throwback Toyota, practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on August 30, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

If you tout Denny Hamlin as a favorite to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship this season, don’t expect the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs racing Toyota to contradict you.

“We certainly have a great shot,” Hamlin said on Saturday at Darlington Raceway, site of Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I like our chances each and every weekend against anyone.”

Recent results back up that assertion. Hamlin picked up his fourth victory of the season Aug. 17 at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he passed Matt DiBenedetto with 11 laps left and pulled away for the win. Hamlin has accumulated 23 Playoff points so far, tied for second in the series with Joe Gibbs racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. and six behind leader Kyle Busch, another teammate.

“We won’t have as many points at Kyle, unless we win the next two races, but we’ll be close,” Hamlin said. “Certainly, closer than we’ve ever been as far as Playoff points are concerned. That’s obviously very crucial to get you past those first couple rounds, if you have a bad race.”

Hamlin hasn’t had many bad races recently. He’s riding a string of six straight top-five finishes that includes victories at Pocono and Bristol. Consequently, winning the next two events isn’t that far-fetched, especially considering his record at Darlington, where Hamlin has two Cup victories and an average finishing position of 6.2—not to mention five wins and nine top fives in 11 NASCAR Xfinity starts.

“I want to win as many races I can, especially after not winning any last year,” Hamlin said. “We want to take advantage of every single opportunity we can to win, and certainly over the last eight weeks, when you look at what we consider our best finishing-position potential, it’s all been a string of ‘1s’. I think certainly we want to capitalize on every single one.”

Greg Engle