In what was sure to be signed, sealed, and delivered day for Denny Hamlin to get his first win of 2021 ultimately fell short in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond.
After leading a whopping 296 laps at his home track, the Virginia driver would settle for second place after a surprise charge from Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman, who picked up his third career victory in three seasons. The pass for the lead came with ten laps to go.
“We just didn’t take off very good there,” Hamlin said in a post-race media session. “Definitely was worse when our car took off after restart. The 48 had his tires pumped up, he was able to take off there, get the lead, build a lead big enough I didn’t have enough time to get back to him.”
Heading into one of his best tracks, Hamlin and sponsor FedEx had more motivation than ever to deliver a statement. On Friday, a gunman shot and killed eight individuals working inside a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. The branding on the car was changed from FedEx Express to FedEx Ground, and a special black ribbon was added to the race car, with “#fedexstrong” on the rear bumper. Hamlin also wore a special white cap with the same hashtag on the front and handwriting the names of the eight victims onto the cap in their memory.
Both Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. led the field to the green, and those two running at the front would be a continuing trend. Driver No. 11 took the lead from his Toyota teammate at lap 32 and held the lead through a stage one victory, and the early laps of stage two.
After a spin by Ryan Newman, Truex found himself back in the lead once again. The lead position saw a shakeup thanks to green flag pit stops with the Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano swapping for the lead briefly. Keselowski stayed out thanks to a strategy call by crew chief Jeremy Bullins, but the strategy would fail after Hamlin retook the lead on lap 207, and the eventual stage two victory.
The final stage began with Hamlin leading the way from the beginning of the stage until another round of green-flag pit stops around lap 292. Following his service, Hamlin reclaimed the lead and continued his march towards his first victory of the season. Truex Jr. delivered a devasting blow to his chances at win number three for 2021 following a pit road speeding penalty after his stop.
The Toyota domination was in jeopardy as Logano’s car began to come alive as the race progressed. He would take the lead on lap 335 from Hamlin and lead for seven laps. Following another round of green-flag pit stops around lap 342, the finish to the race began to take shape with the duo of Logano and Hamlin becoming the clear favorite for the race. The Team Penske driver led all the way up to lap 380 before a spinning Kevin Harvick changed everything.
Teams came down pit road for their final round of pit stops under caution, and the FedEx crew serviced Hamlin’s car in an eye-popping 11.9 seconds, beating Logano off pit road.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) April 18, 2021
After restarting on the inside of the front row with 12 laps to go, Hamlin held the lead for only a short time before Bowman made his move. With ten to go heading into turn 2, the Hendrick Motorsports driver cleared Hamlin, leading to what would become the finish of the race.
NEW LEADER: ALEX BOWMAN pic.twitter.com/VvJ6M2IJ3c
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) April 18, 2021
Hamlin made one final charge thanks to the aid of traffic, but it wouldn’t be enough, leaving Hamlin looking outside victory lane yet again in 2021.
Nevertheless, the day remained in positive spirits for Hamlin. Even without a win, he sits with an 81 point advantage over teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the season point standings. Regardless of no wins, Hamlin is showing that the No. 11 team is continuing their consistent and dominating efforts from 2020.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he explained. “You’re upset in the moment. You feel like you should capitalize when you have great cars. But in the big picture, we are running very strong and in contention each week.”
Hamlin will try for his first win at Talladega next weekend, and it’s a high possibility he will get the job done. In his last five races at the superspeedway, he has four top-five finishes including being the most recent winner from October, which launched him into the round of eight for the 2020 Playoffs.