If it weren’t for Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin’s 2018 season would look even better than it already does.
Through four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, Hamlin has finished fourth or better three times, has led laps in three of the four races and has been in contention to win.
He also sits sixth in the series standings and has some of his best tracks coming up on the horizon.
Harvick’s three consecutive victories and 433 laps led in those events has elevated himself above the rest of the field.
“We’re running well, we’re leading laps and we’re doing some things that are good,” Hamlin said after his fifth-place finish Sunday at Phoenix. “We just need a little bit. Obviously, I want to be a little faster and a little more consistent and eliminate some mistakes we’re making on pit road.”
With 111 of 312 laps to go, Hamlin and Harvick caught William Byron – who had taken two-tires on his pit stop – to race three-wide for the lead. Hamlin emerged with the top spot for the first time in the race.
Over the next 30 laps, Hamlin kept a frustrated Harvick at bay. With 71 to go, Kyle Busch finally got around Harvick and into second and two laps later he dispatched Hamlin from the lead. Hamlin would not get out front again.
“I did my best to hold (Harvick) up and frustrate him and I probably frustrated him towards the middle part of the race,” Hamlin said. “I was just trying to lead as many laps as I could, but I knew it was just a matter of time before he got around me.
“It was a fun race overall and definitely good to be competitive.”
Hamlin overcame another pit road miscue in the race, when he got his No. 11 Toyota too close to pit wall during a stop in Stage 2 and his team had problems jacking the car.
Aside from correcting issues like that, there is one thing Hamlin said he could use to get his and Toyota’s first win of the season.
“We need just a little bit of speed. Our balance is perfect and we could run with (Harvick), but his balance stayed better longer than I was able to,” Hamlin said. “Proud of the comeback we had, obviously I made a mistake there coming to pit road and got too close to the wall and we dropped the car off the jack, but still was able to come back through.
“We had a fast car, we finished about where we should have. We need a half-a-tenth (of a second) to be right there and get a race win.”