BY AARON BURNS, @AaronClayBurns
Denny Hamlin didn’t need to win Monday’s Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
I mean, you know Hamlin wanted to win. He was fast enough to do so, too -- considering he had eventual winner Joey Logano in his crosshairs over the final laps.
Alas, Hamlin chose not to go for a bump-and-run, so he settled for his sixth top-five finish in seven races this season.
Hamlin has finished fifth, third, 11th, fourth, third, fourth and third. Winners -- of which there have been seven already -- get five Playoff points for each victory. Hamlin has no wins, so his Playoff point tally stands at three after winning three stages this year.
He’s still the NASCAR Cup Series’ points leader, though. Hamlin has a 58-point lead on Logano, and he’s accrued 80 more points than Martin Truex Jr., who’s the series’ third-highest scorer thus far.
Imagine if we didn’t have the Playoffs.
Hamlin would already have about a full race’s worth of points on second place. He could be winless well into June or July and probably still be the odds-on championship favorite, if there was no reset of sorts for the last 10 races.
Hamlin will win a few times before Race No. 27, too, but he has to wait another week to get a shot at his first trophy of 2021.
“I just wasn’t aggressive enough,” Hamlin said after Bristol.
“I should have shoved (Logano) out. When I had position on the bottom, I should have just moved up and got him in the dust, and got rid of him. I just wanted to pass him clean. I didn’t, so I didn’t win. … Certainly, he didn’t get a very good restart. I was on him entering turn one. That tells me if I can start beside him, then I had an opportunity there to be ahead of him getting in one.”
Hamlin doesn’t have a history of moving drivers out of the way for the lead, so -- one second, I think I’m getting a phone call.
Hello? The 2017 fall race at Martinsville Speedway? What do you want?
Hamlin moved Chase Elliott out of the way to take the lead? Alright, thanks for calling.
Maybe there is a precedent. Maybe Hamlin remembered that when he nudged Elliott to move into the top spot at Martinsville three and a half years ago, he didn’t end up winning the race.
This time, however, the odds were stacked in his favor if the chrome horn was used. Track position was at a premium, and if Hamlin assumed the point he was likely to hang onto it.
Because of the track surface, we could’ve called it a dirty move, and been right whether you were a Hamlin fan or a Hamlin detractor.
Martinsville is next. It’ll be interesting to see if Hamlin keeps up his patience. He doesn’t need to win yet, but at some point, the close calls are going to get to him.
Or, he’ll just keep finishing third and fourth.