The Oklahoman

Hamlin surges in NASCAR playoffs

- Greg Beacham

LAS VEGAS – Denny Hamlin will reach the third round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs next month having faced the make-or-break pressure of the postseason only twice.

Ending the first race of each postseason round in victory lane can do wonders for the blood pressure of a driver and his team, because every winner clinches a spot in the following round.

Hamlin won three weeks ago at Darlington to open the playoffs, and then he did it again Sunday night at Las Vegas in the second-round opener.

He is the first driver to win the first race in each of the first two rounds since NASCAR introduced this playoff format in 2014.

Two playoff races, two tickets punched – and four ensuing opportunit­ies to race with no weight on Hamlin’s shoulders.

“I’m so happy to not have to worry about the next two weeks,” he said.

Sunday’s victory was Hamlin’s first in Vegas, the 46th of his career – and arguably one of his most important, if it helps him to stay on course for title contention.

“It’s just such an advantage to win any race in the playoffs, but certainly the first race of any round,” said Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief. “Especially this (second) round. You look at Talladega and Charlotte – you can’t stress enough. Every one of these race teams are profession­al, so they deal with the stress and the pressure. They handle it. But it’s there. It exists. You can’t look past it. It’s real. We’ve only had to deal with that for what will be two of the first six races of the playoffs.”

Tension is running high in other areas of the paddock, and not strictly because of the playoff pressure.

Kevin Harvick is still upset with defending champion Chase Elliott after their conflict at Bristol last weekend. Before Sunday’s race in Vegas, Harvick compared his dialogue with Elliott to a conversati­on with his own 9-year-old son, Keelan.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been that mad,” said Harvick, who is no stranger to on-track anger. “That was probably the maddest I’ve ever been.”

Harvick asserted the race at Bristol had been manipulate­d by Elliott’s tactics to slow him down. Harvick didn’t explicitly vow retributio­n, but said: “That stuff all comes full circle in this deal and has a funny way of teaching you.”

Harvick wasn’t in position for any revenge in Vegas, finishing ninth while Elliott came in second. Elliott had a shot to catch Hamlin on the final 10 laps but couldn’t quite close the gap with a driver on a major roll.

The next time Hamlin’s future will be on the line is Oct. 17 at Texas in the opening race of the third round. In a way, he’s already more than halfway to the long-anticipate­d first championsh­ip of his 17-year career if he can keep up this remarkable success.

He’s not relaxing in the interim – he even debated skipping any post-victory partying in Vegas because he wanted to get back to Charlotte in time to get his daughters from school on Monday. But when he lines up next week at Talladega, Hamlin will race free and easy.

“From my standpoint, it’s a free pass to go there and try to lead every lap (and) win the race,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew intend to make the most of their opportunit­y as they close in on the chance to race for Hamlin’s long-sought, never-achieved first championsh­ip. They will use the weekends at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval to stay sharp and to make adjustment­s for the dwindling races that still count.

“Listen, I’m still profession­al,” Hamlin said. “I still want to go out there and win the next two weeks. There is no reason for us to take any weeks off. We don’t take any weeks off. .. We’ve been in playoff mode for quite a while now. I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the what-ifs of what can happen that can take you out. During the course of my career, I’ve had just about all the what-ifs actually happen. It’s good to know we’ve got nothing to lose at this point.”

Everyone involved also understand­s the capricious nature of a NASCAR playoff title. Several months of hard work and steady improvemen­ts can put a driver in a strong position, but it can all be undone in one race, particular­ly at the end.

Yet Hamlin is clearly peaking at the right time. The victory in Darlington was his first of the year, and he still racked up a second-place and ninthplace finish before his second win at Vegas. Hamlin has an impressive 21 top-10 finishes this season.

“Certainly our team has been really capable all year long,” Gabehart said. “Every metric other than the win column has been astounding for our team.”

 ?? STEVE MARCUS/AP ?? NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin celebrates in victory lane after winning the South Point 400 on Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
STEVE MARCUS/AP NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin celebrates in victory lane after winning the South Point 400 on Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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