Denny Hamlin has historically never been on the shortlist of favorites to prevail when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competes at Watkins Glen International.
This weekend is an entirely different story, however.
For the first time ever, Hamlin is considered the driver to beat on the challenging 2.45-mile road course.
The reason? Last season — seemingly out of nowhere — Hamlin was NASCAR’s most successful road racer. After finishing second at Sonoma Raceway in June, Hamlin scored his first career road course victory when NASCAR’s premier series convened at WGI in August.
Hamlin’s road-course success has since carried over to 2017, as evidenced by his performance earlier this summer at Sonoma where he finished fourth and led 11 laps.
“I consider him a threat everywhere we go, but certainly at a road race now, I think he’s proven that he’s somebody that can contend for a win,” said Hamlin’s team owner, Joe Gibbs.
Last year’s race at Watkins Glen was sweet redemption for Hamlin after Tony Stewart snatched the jaws of victory right out of his hands with a last-lap bump and run at Sonoma.
With Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski harassing Hamlin’s back bumper in the closing laps at WGI, Hamlin was determined not to leave a road course empty-handed for the second time in 2016.
“It was my job to make them make a move on me instead of don’t overshoot the corner and just open the door for them,” Hamlin said. “Make them make an aggressive move to pass you. By doing that, you’re being a little defensive and you’re not getting 100 percent out of the race car, and you’re allowing them to get closer. I think being a little defensive on those final couple laps, making sure I didn’t pull a Sonoma, allowed them to get a little closer than where I was comfortable with. But, my job was to just make sure I executed.”
Hamlin’s determination paid off with a hard-fought victory that remains fresh in minds as Monster Energy Series drivers prepare to turn both left and right for the second and final time in 2017.
“Denny, I felt like Sonoma (2016) was a heartbreak there to go to the last corner and lose the race out there on a road course,” Gibbs said. “For him to come out on top at Watkins Glen, I think that says a lot about Denny.”
As good fortune would have it for Hamlin, no one was unable to mount a last-lap charge one year ago at WGI. With Truex running second and Keselowski third as the cars neared the exit from Turn 7 on the final lap, contact from Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford sent Truex’s No. 78 Toyota spinning. Joey Logano took advantage of the dust-up to finish second in his No. 22 Team Penske Ford. Hamlin crossed the finish line 2.065 seconds ahead of Logano for a victory that was nowhere near as comfortable as the final margin seemed to indicate.
It was an appropriate ending to a race at a place accustomed to chaos — which is likely to return this weekend, especially with the addition of stages.
“A lot of times we go to Watkins Glen and we talk about if it’s a two-stop or three-stop strategy,” Logano said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work out, because now you know when the cautions are going to fall. And you’re racing for points, obviously you can pit and not go down a lap and there’s not much tire fall-off. I don’t know. That’s why Todd (Gordon, crew chief) gets paid the big bucks. I always tell him I’ll drive the car and you can call the race. That’s how that’s going play out.”