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Denny Hamlin gets 1st Dover victory; Cup championship in striking distance

Dan Gelston
Associated Press

Dover, Del. — Denny Hamlin crossed Dover off the meager list of tracks where he had yet to win and turned his ambitions toward one more goal he’d like to scratch off the docket.

Pushing 40, Hamlin’s first career Cup championship is within his grasp – and he might never be better.

“I’m in the prime of my career right now and I’ve got things rolling,” Hamlin said.

Denny Hamlin stands on his car after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

Hamlin tamed the concrete mile oval that gave him fits for 15 years and zipped past Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps left to win the NASCAR Cup Series race Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

Hamlin was 0 for 28 at Dover, the kind of losing streak that had him studying the runs of his more successful JGR teammates in Truex and Kyle Busch to pick up tips on how best to win at the track.

He learned from his teammates – then beat them in the No. 11 Toyota, though Truex’s runner-up finish and Busch’s third gave JGR a 1-2-3 finish in the first of two races this weekend at Dover.

“People always ask what your least favorite track is and I say Dover just because I’m not that good,” Hamlin said. “I love the track, I just haven’t been very good here.”

Hamlin matched Kevin Harvick for the season victory lead with six, matching his total from last season and closing within two of his career high set in 2010. He opened this season with a Daytona 500 win and added wins at Homestead, Pocono and Kansas to catapult toward the kind of sensational run he’s never had in an otherwise stellar career.

“There’s been no year where it’s been like this,” Hamlin said. “Every week. It’s literally every single week. We set some lofty goals at the beginning of the year to try to win 10 races. It’s still achievable. We should have more than six easily.”

He just had to mute the victory celebration. Hamlin was ordered by crew chief Chris Gabehart to save the No. 11 Toyota from a burnout because the car is needed again Sunday.

Hamlin went from the car to carhop, laughing as he said he needed to order milkshakes for the crew prepping the car late into the night.

But is a championship on the menu?

Hamlin has come oh-so close to winning it all and was runner-up in 2010 and finished fourth last season. Hamlin’s even become ambivalent toward his growing checkered flag collection because “we’re winning so much now.” He’d like to excuse himself from the list of greatest drivers to never win it all but he’s on it, for now – Hamlin has 43 career wins, which puts him behind Junior Johnson (50) for most Cup victories without a championship. Again, Hamlin has at least positioned himself to make the championship race in Phoenix.

“Our process is working right now,” Hamlin said.

He was dominant in Dover with wins in the first two stages and he led a race-high 115 laps. Hamlin never lost the faith when Truex controlled most of the final third of the race, and knew he could nip his teammate and earn the playoff points that could make him a lock for Phoenix.

“We just took that whole last stage to get back to him but I was confident,” Hamlin said.

Truex snapped a streak of five straight third-place finishes and ended up second. It’s his sixth straight top-10 finish. Truex, who has three career Dover wins, blamed Aric Almirola for ruining his day.

“Every time I tried to move up and get some air in my car he’d just slide up in front of me like an idiot,” Truex said.

Harvick, on the brink of clinching the regular-season title, was fourth and Chase Elliott fifth.

Jimmie Johnson finished seventh and inched his way into the 16th and final playoff spot with two races left before the field is set. William Byron lost 28 points on Johnson to fall out of the playoff grid.

There is one more race at Dover and next week at Daytona to set the playoff field.

Johnson has a record 11 wins at Dover and was feted by the track this weekend as its greatest winner. Dover honored Johnson the best it could given the restrictions placed under the pandemic. Johnson stopped by the plaque on Dover’s victory lane that called him “The Monster Mile Master.” A road outside the front-stretch grandstands, previously known as Finish Line Drive, has been renamed Jimmie Johnson Drive. And a billboard overlooking the second turn proclaimed “Thanks, Jimmie.”

“We have something to build on tonight and we will come back tomorrow and have something left for them,” Johnson said.

Johnson seems a longshot to pass Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and win a record eighth NASCAR championship.

But for Hamlin, this might be the year.

“I know that we are a championship team regardless of whether we have the trophy or not,” he said. “We’re plenty capable. It’s just a tough business when it comes down to it. When you run 36, it comes down to one.”