To say Denny Hamlin put in a strong performance during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville, Virginia on Sunday would be a master of understatement. The veteran driver from nearby Chesterfield dominated 276 of the 500 laps - more than half the race distance.
But while Hamlin may have looked like the favorite to take the checkered flag, he was third when the dust settled, after both Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott motored past to take the top two spots.
A seventh top 5 finish in eight races this season is still plenty impressive, but some fans might call him out for not being aggressive enough in the dying stages of the race.
To counter that thought, it needs to be pointed out that considering the number of cautions and the multi-car pileup in Stage 3, it was only sensible for Denny Hamlin to not want to jeopardize his top 5 finish by trying too hard to hold off the eventual leaders, especially at a track where contact is an acceptable form of race craft.
It was a trait displayed by Hamlin at the Bristol dirt race as well, where he refrained from nudging Joey Logano for the win. Instead, he picked up 50 valuable points after another third-place finish.
At Martinsville too, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver kept the bigger picture in mind, that of the elusive first Cup title he's been chasing for the better part of the last 16 years since he started running the premier series full-time. Thanks to his P3 finish, Denny Hamlin now rests comfortably atop the drivers' standings with 379 points next to his name.
Denny Hamlin: A Hall of Fame-worthy driver already but...
Even if Denny Hamlin never wins the Cup championship, he's enjoyed a Hall of Fame-worthy career that includes three Daytona 500s and 44 victories overall, which puts him 19th on the all-time win list, tied with Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
However, after having come close and missed out on winning NASCAR's most prestigious trophy on as many as five occasions, the goal of winning the championship has to be at the back of Denny Hamlin's mind.
With most race weekends devoid of practice sessions this season as part of NASCAR's COVID-19 restrictions, and only the simulator to work with, the 40-year-old will be looking to bring his vast experience to the fore in a legitimate bid for the title.
While the championship weekend at Phoenix is some ways away, Denny Hamlin seems to be taking it one race at a time in the lead up to the finale.
Denny Hamlin feels his No. 11 team is "second best"
While Denny Hamlin staying within the limits of his car is commendable and exemplifies his maturity as a driver, there's no hiding from the fact that a win would have made his championship effort a whole lot easier by locking him into the playoffs.
But that's an issue the team needs to work on. Should he make it to the finale, there will be three other cars that he'll have to beat and it's likely that one of them will not have to deal with any such shortcomings.
Hamlin admitted to those deficiencies in a straightforward assessment that the No. 11 is currently the second-best car in the competition on every occasion:
"We just haven’t had that dominant car that we’ve had a few times last year that we just beat up on everyone. We just haven’t had that car yet. We’ve just been next best."
The NASCAR Cup Series will stay within the Virginia state lines as the circus heads to Richmond next week, a track that Denny Hamlin considers his home venue and has three wins, 13 top 5s and 20 top 10s at. However, while he will once again aim to take home a good points day and keep alive his lead in the standings, what he will really be hoping for is win No. 4 at the "Action Track."