Denny Hamlin finally tames Monster Mile

Denny Hamlin won for the first time at Dover International Speedway in his 30th try on Saturday. Special to the State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — Denny Hamlin knows his history at Dover International Speedway.

And he knows it really hasn’t been very good.

But Hamlin might have changed that perception with one dominating performance on Saturday.

Hamlin won the race’s first two stages before running down Martin Truex, Jr. to capture the Drydene 311 NASCAR Cup victory on the Monster Mile.

It was the 39-year-old Hamlin’s first Cup win at Dover and came in his 30th race here.

“It’s awesome, I can’t even tell you,” said Hamlin. “The Monster trophy is very, very cool and I’ve always been envious of the people that had them. I felt that I was always a fifth-place driver at this racetrack. … It definitely gives me a ton of confidence.”

Hamlin will try to carry that confidence with him into today for the second part of the unusual Dover doubleheader. The second Drydene 311 will be run today at 4 p.m. on the Monster Mile.

Of course, much of the race weekend has been unusual as all six races being hosted by Dover in this three-day stretch have been run without any fans in attendance. The state didn’t permit fans because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The fact that Hamlin ended up with the victory, though, was hardly surprising. Now with six wins and 16 top-10 finishes this season, he’s been as hot as anyone on the circuit.

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

“We’re just rolling right now. And we’re rolling at tracks that we’re not typically great at. That gives me confidence. … Our process is working right now, my preparation is working and it’s all paying off.”

Hamlin, who started second, ended up leading 115 laps compared to 88 for Truex, Jr. Hamlin finally passed Truex, Jr., going underneath him on Lap 302 after chasing him from the high groove for several previous laps.

Hamlin said his team really did a good job of helping him not try to make up the gap too quickly.

“When I would switch lines to the middle lane or the top lane, they were telling me, ‘OK, that’s good enough,’” said Hamlin. “‘You’re not to him yet, but, at that pace, you’re going to catch him and you should get him. You’re already gaining on him, you don’t need to get more than that.’

“That kind of keeps him in check so I don’t make a mistake when I’m trying to run him down. It’s tough. These cars are on the edge here at Dover. You’re sliding all over the place. You want to do everything you can not to push.”

All things considered, Truex, Jr. felt OK with his finish. He said he struggled with his car’s handling most of the day.

It was his 17th top-10 finish in 30 Dover races. 

“I felt like we almost stole one, to be honest,” said Truex, Jr., who has finished in the top three in six straight races. “I definitely thought the 11 car (Hamlin) was better than us. They were better all day long. When he was in front of me, he could drive away and I couldn’t do anything with it.”

On the other hand, Truex, Jr. was a little annoyed with Aric Almirola, who he says kept blocking him down the stretch despite being out of contention.

“When he’s holding me up, the second-place guy is catching me obviously,” said Truex, Jr. “I’m sure he was getting that info. I was fine with him running where he wanted to run, which was pinned on the white line on the bottom. 

“I had a problem with every time I’d try to move up, he would drive up the racetrack in front of me. Not cool to do to the leader when second is catching him.”

Cup points leader Kevin Harvick didn’t anything to jeopardize his top spot after finishing fourth in Saturday’s race. He still leads Hamlin by 100 points.

Jimmie Johnson’s seventh-place finish on Saturday was good enough to put him in the playoff field with two races remaining before the cutoff. The all-time leader in wins at Dover jumped from 17th to 14th place on Saturday.

Austin Dillon, who was sidelined for last week’s race after testing positive for COVID-19, led for 49 laps on Saturday — the third-most of any driver. But he dropped back into the pack and placed just 15th.

Of course, with a second Cup race looming this afternoon, all the drivers knew they had to put Saturday’s race quickly behind them.

The top 20 spots from Saturday’s race are inverted for today’s starting lineup. Matt DiBenedetto will start on the pole with Hamlin starting 20th.

“Hydration, nutrition — those are the two things that I’ll focus on tonight,” said Hamlin, “The team gave me their milkshake order. I have to go across the street. 

“I have to fulfill their milkshake orders because they’re going to be here working on that car late night.”