Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – Denny Hamlin rolled off 13th in Sunday’s South Point 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener. One of three drivers – all Joe Gibbs Racing teammates – with three wins in the regular season, Hamlin started the playoffs ranked second but seems not only eager, but confident in his team’s ability to finish the Playoffs ranked a position higher.
He has been a perennial championship contender, but Hamlin conceded, this season feels a little different. For starters, he celebrated in Daytona 500 Victory Lane for the second time in his career and has answered with three more trophies. He’s won twice in just the last six weeks leading into the 10-race Playoff push – earning his Bristol, Tenn. race win from the pole position.
In all, Hamlin has 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in the No. 11 JGR Toyota this year. He started on the outside pole position at the Las Vegas race this March and finished 10th. But it’s the sustained level of success this season, that has propelled Hamlin into a strong Playoff run and a legitimate championship favorite.
And he feels it.
“Certainly, I feel like there’s no weaknesses in our game right now as long as we can keep the solid finishes going put ourselves in good position this race and the next race then we can hopefully go to the ROVAL and not care how things go for us,’’ Hamlin said. “I think that’s the ultimate goal for us.
“There’s nothing we haven’t seen through these playoffs, these different formats and you have to be ready and willing to adapt to any change in circumstances or situation and a lot of that depends on if your competitors have a bad race right off the bat, you can change your focus for the rest of the race.
BRING THE HEAT
The temperatures for the Las Vegas race Sunday afternoon are expected to hit triple digits under the desert sun. But the vast majority of the Cup Series drivers seemed ready – even resigned – to the tough challenge of competing in the heat.
For some, the real issue is starting the race off in the day and ending it in the night – what can be variation of as much as 10-15 degrees in Las Vegas during this time of year. The temperature is expected to be 100 degrees or slightly above at the drop of the green flag and will forecast to be in the low-90s by the time the checkered flag flies.
“It’s gonna be tricky, starting the race in the heat of day and ending in the dark,’’ said Martin Truex Jr., a 2017 Vegas race winner. “Gotta keep up with it.’’
“It’s not fun, but you want your car to stay somewhat balanced and that’s what we worked on, it’s just another day so you have to deal with it and hopefully we deal with it better than anybody else.’’
Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and a fellow four race winner this season, Denny Hamlin said he’s actually just fine to race in the heat.
“I like it personally, I think most drivers like it hot, slick where we have to get out of the gas and I think the driver plays a bigger role in conditions like these,’’ said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota.
LOYAL NASCAR FAN
Popular television and movie actor Wilmer Valderrama was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday morning catching up with some friends – namely seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Valderrama said it was actually a chance meeting and later a friendship with Johnson that really piqued his interest in NASCAR. He couldn’t even put a number on the amount of races he’s attended in the last two decades because of their friendship and Valderrama’s love of NASCAR’s style of competition.
“I was introduced to a young up-and-coming driver by the name of Jimmie Johnson,’’ Valderrama said smiling about his first meeting with Johnson about 20 years ago. “And we got to really like each other, we became buddies and friends and he was one of the first ones to introduce me to the NASCAR culture.
“I’ve followed his career and it turns out, he did pretty well, and has for a pretty long time.’’ Valderrama said. ”We became good friends.’’
Also with Valderrama at the race was fellow actor Jaime Camil, who stars in CBS’s “Broke” and was on the CW’s “Jane the Virgin. This weekend both drivers supported Stewart-Haas Racing driver Daniel Suarez’s “Daniel’s Amigos” – a fan group that gathers at races to cheer and support the Mexican-born Suarez.
Camil also has been to other NASCAR races and spoke about the good vibes at track and his newfound appreciation of the sport.
“I got hooked immediately and I love how inclusive it is with the fans, I love the efforts the organization is making to make it even more diverse and inclusive,’’ Camil said. “Racing is such a universal sport and it appeals to all graphics of ethnicity so what NASCAR is doing right now with diversity and inclusiveness is incredible.
Elliott Sadler has long been one of NASCAR’s most popular competitors and the reception he received Saturday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in his final NASCAR national series start seemed fitting.
After 23 years of NASCAR competition – highlighted by three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins, 13 Xfinity Series victories and four Xfinity Series championship runner-up finishes – Sadler has left a mark on the sport. And vice versa.
He finished 10th Saturday afternoon in his Las Vegas farewell.
“I really enjoyed today. .. made a rookie mistake and knocked crush panels out with 50 to go,’’ Sadler said on social media after the race. “But glad I was able to fight it out to the end. .. 23 years is a long time to be in a sport you love so dearly. .. so many memories and friends made… no regrets!!”