LAS VEGAS – Denny Hamlin will reach the third round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs next month having faced the make-or-break pressure of the postseason only twice.
Ending the first race of each postseason round in victory lane can do wonders for the blood pressure of a driver and his team, because every winner clinches a spot in the following round.
Hamlin won three weeks ago at Darlington to open the playoffs, and then he did it again Sunday night at Las Vegas in the second-round opener. He is the first driver to win the first race in each of the first two rounds since NASCAR introduced this playoff format in 2014.
Two playoff races, two tickets punched – and four ensuing opportunities to race with no weight on Hamlin's shoulders.
“I'm so happy to not have to worry about the next two weeks,” he said.
Sunday's victory was Hamlin's first in Vegas, the 46th of his career – and arguably one of his most important, if it helps him to stay on course for title contention.
“It's just such an advantage to win any race in the playoffs, but certainly the first race of any round,” said Chris Gabehart, Hamlin's crew chief. “Especially this (second) round. You look at Talladega and Charlotte – you can't stress enough. Every one of these race teams are professional, so they deal with the stress and the pressure. They handle it. But it's there. It exists. You can't look past it. It's real. We've only had to deal with that for what will be two of the first six races of the playoffs.”
The next time Hamlin's future will be on the line is Oct. 17 at Texas in the opening race of the third round.
Everyone involved also understands the capricious nature of a NASCAR playoff title. Several months of hard work and steady improvements can put a driver in a strong position, but it can all be undone in one race, particularly at the end.
Yet Hamlin is clearly peaking at the right time. The victory in Darlington was his first of the year, and he still racked up a second-place and ninth-place finish before his second win at Vegas. Hamlin has an impressive 21 top-10 finishes this season.
“Certainly our team has been really capable all year long,” Gabehart said. “Every metric other than the win column has been astounding for our team. It's really been our best year together thus far. ...
“They're coming at the right time.”
Pagenaud leaves Team Penske
Simon Pagenaud, who won an IndyCar championship, and ranks the Indianapolis 500 among his 11 wins in seven seasons driving for Team Penske, was named driver of the No. 60 for Meyer Shank Racing, where he will reunite with former Penske teammate Helio Castroneves to drive for this year's Indy 500 winning organization.
He was the second driver this season to walk away from Team Penske, joining Brad Keselowski from the NASCAR team in the rare club of Penske drivers who leave of their own accord.