Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – Denny Hamlin’s commitment to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing featured a lot more moving parts than a run-of-the-mill driver contract.
First, Hamlin had to renew the agreement of 23XI Racing, the team he owns with former NBA superstar Michael Jordan, with Toyota. Hamlin also had to cement the deal with JGR as a supplier for 23XI.
As of NASCAR Cup Series Playoff media day in Charlotte—four days before the Playoff opener at Darlington Raceway—Hamlin had not signed his deal with Gibbs, but that circumstance changed after Hamlin finished 25th at the Track Too Tough to Tame.
Hamlin, however, said the urgency of the Playoffs had little to do with the completion of his agreements and that the timing occurred naturally.
“A little bit of both,” Hamlin said Saturday at Kansas Speedway. “I would say more natural time than anything. Obviously, you have to prepare for all different kinds of scenarios, so you need a certain amount of time to work all of those out.
“I just think it happened naturally, more than timeline with the Playoffs, for sure.”
Hamlin is fifth in the Cup Series standings, having offset his disappointing finish by winning the first two stages at Darlington.
He said Saturday that the issue that caused him to make an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 274 of 367 was indeed a loose wheel.
“The socket (on the left rear tire) is turning, turning, turning and it never stopped,” Hamlin said. “The left rear is one of the most sensitive corners. If it was the left front, we probably could have gotten away with it, no problem.
“It’s just the way that track works. It’s the most sensitive corner on the car. When it’s not all the way tight, you are going to feel it dramatically, and it would continue to just back off to that safety clip and then it would have damaged the hub so bad that we wouldn’t have been able to get a tire on.”
Michael McDowell isn’t ready to push the panic button
The opening race in the Round of 16 of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs hardly could have gone worse for Michael McDowell.
After starting ninth, McDowell struggled with the handling on his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford and faded as the race progressed. He failed to score points in either of the first two stages.
The coup de grace came when McDowell was collected in a five-car wreck late in the race and exited in 32nd-place, earning just five points in the opener.
McDowell comes to the second Round of 16 race at Kansas Speedway 16th in the Playoff standings, 19 points behind Christopher Bell in 12th, the cutoff position for the next round. That doesn’t mean, however, that McDowell is ready to take desperate measures.
“Obviously, Darlington didn’t go like we hoped it would go,” McDowell said. “Our goal was to go in there and not make any mistakes, and unfortunately we did and ended up crashing out there at the end. It’s not a panic ‘911,’ must-win, have to go extreme strategy or extreme aggression, because there’s still room for other teams and other drivers to have some mistakes.
“But we definitely have to go out there and run top-10 to top-five the next two weeks, if we don’t win to put ourselves in position. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but I don’t feel like we’re out of the game. I don’t feel like we’re out of the fight.
“We’ve had speed all year. It’s just putting it all together. We’ll probably need a little bit of misfortune from some other competitors. We’ve seen that in the first round before, particularly at Darlington and Kansas, so there’s a lot of opportunities to not get it right.”
After solid run at Darlington, Bubba Wallace is confident at Kansas
Bubba Wallace ended last Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 on a positive note, climbing to seventh in the finishing order with a strong run in the final stage.
Though he’s currently one point below the cut line for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 12, the driver of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota is justifiably optimistic about his chances to advance in the postseason.
Though Wallace failed to qualify for the Playoffs last year, he won the second event at Kansas Speedway. In this year’s spring race, he finished fourth.
“Confidence is pretty well up there for Kansas,” Wallace acknowledged. “We know what we’re capable of doing. We just have to really hone in. These races are super important for us. We made up a lot of ground in the first race of the Playoffs, but we’ve got to continue to do so, being one point out.”
There’s a six-point spread between Joey Logano in 11th place and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 15th, so there’s ample opportunity for movement on Sunday.
“There’s a bunch of us that are hovering around the bubble mark right now,” Wallace said, “so we need to be better than them, and this is a great place to go out and do it.”
Wallace will face one impediment in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). His car failed pre-qualifying inspection twice. Hence, Wallace lost the services of car chief Zachary Marquardt, who was ejected from the track.
He also lost pit selection—potentially detrimental depending on which drivers are pitting in front of him and behind him.