If it weren’t for issues on pit road Denny Hamlin might be king of the NASCAR world right now

FORT WORTH, TX - MARCH 31: Team owner Joe Gibbs celebrates with Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on March 31, 2019 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Conventional wisdom suggests one pit road penalty can be overcome, but two pit road penalties is something a driver and team generally cannot recover from if they have any intention of winning a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. It just doesn’t happen with any regularity.

Denny Hamlin and the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota Camry team, however, don’t care about conventional wisdom. In spite of incurring not one but two penalties on pit road, Hamlin won the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

The first penalty occurred when Hamlin exceeded the 45 mph pit road speed limit while making a pit stop on Lap 64. The second penalty was for an uncontrolled tire violation on Lap 173, seemingly cementing that this wouldn’t be the day Hamlin won his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the 2019 season.

And yet when it was all said and done, there was Hamlin in victory lane, having rallied back to overcome both penalties, celebrating his 33rd career win in NASCAR’s premier division. Oh, and Hamlin also missed pit road while attempting to make a green-flag stop during Stage 1, then later the No. 11 team had a slow pit stop due to a tire changer dropping a pit gun.

Hamlin is the first driver to win a race despite being penalized twice on pit road penalties since Brad Keselowski won at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2014.

“I told them when I was making my way through the pack, I know this really sucks because we’re probably not going to win with the fastest car,” Hamlin said. “It was fun passing all those cars, it really was.”

Issues on pit road have been a recurring theme for Hamlin and his JGR team this season. He has now been penalized four times in the past three races for various infractions on pit road, yet in each instance he still a managed to record a top-10 finish: a seventh at Auto Club Speedway even though he sped on pit road; a fifth at ISM Raceway, a race that saw the No. 11 team penalized for an uncontrolled tire; and then both penalties on Sunday in Texas.

It’s almost as if Hamlin, crew chief Chris Gabehart and the No. 11 team are attempting to earn bonus points for degree of difficulty. Just imagine the outcome if they could avoid being penalized.

“We haven’t optimized our races yet,” Gabehart said. “That’s encouraging to know. You’re racing against the best teams in the world. It’s difficult to have a flawless race; it’s not an easy thing. It’s one thing to identify, it’s another thing to fix. That’s something we got to work on.

“The exciting thing is we never leave the racetrack guessing where we could have did better. So in that regard we definitely haven’t reached our potential.”

But while Hamlin and company may have had some gaffes on pit road in recent weeks, their collective excellence on pit road also factored heavily into Hamlin winning at Texas.

Hamlin’s final pit stop Sunday came under green flag conditions, with him holding a narrow lead over second-place Clint Bowyer. But Hamlin got on and off pit road quickly and smoothly, while the No. 11 team also flawlessly executed a fuel-only stop. The mistake-free sequence allowed Hamlin to extend his lead over Bowyer. He was unchallenged the rest of the way, winning by almost 3 seconds.

“We were fast enough to overcome everything that kind of got thrown at us,” Hamlin said. “We tried every way we could to give it away, and we found a way to do it with this FedEx Camry.”

Speed is a cure-all. And there is no doubt Hamlin has had that in abundance this season.

Hamlin’s two victories are tied with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski for most in the series, marking the first time in his 14-year career he has had that many wins through the first seven races. And Hamlin sits second in the standings, trailing leader Busch by just eight points heading into next weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

There is every reason to think Hamlin can continue his winning ways at Bristol, then carry that to subsequent races at Richmond Raceway (April 13) and Talladega Superspeedway (April 28). The Bristol-Richmond-Talladega stretch sets up favorably for Hamlin, who’s won a combined five times at these three tracks.

Now, if Hamlin and the No. 11 team can just avoid having to overcome a penalty or two every week their path to Victory Lane would be all the easier.

“We have speed,” Hamlin said. “With a little execution I certainly believe we easily could be leading the points. (Busch’s team) has out-executed us a few races. That’s really been the difference. I really believe that this team is not even close to where it’s going to be in two months.”

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