Denny Hamlin sees progress coming at his “by far weakest oval”

Denny Hamlin sees progress coming at his “by far weakest oval”

During much of last season, Toyotas struggled on shorter tracks, with Hamlin scoring the manufacturer’s only victory on an asphalt track a mile in length or less (fall Bristol).

The group, and Hamlin in particular, have had issues finding speed at Phoenix Raceway, which is especially important considering it’s the site of the annual series championship race.

That’s why Hamlin – and Toyota’s – performance Friday was so uplifting.

Hamlin ended up second-fastest in average speed with Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek joining him in the top five. Among those drivers who ran at least 10 consecutive laps, three Toyota drivers led the way – Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell and Nemechek.

Making gains

Asked if he was pleased with his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team’s performance on Friday, Hamlin said, “Certainly. I think that we’re not our typical 3/10ths (of a second) off in practice here that we usually are.

“We made, you know, a big set of changes though for my car in the past. So, over the last couple of years, we’re just trying something different to try to get better at this track. Obviously, it’s been the No. 11 car’s by far weakest oval.

“So, trying to get better at it. And I think we’re staking a step in the right direction.”

Hamlin said seeing his fellow Toyota drivers also showing speed is more illustrative of progress than simply trying to evaluate set-up changes his team made to the car.

“To see other Toyotas up towards the front, it’s good. It’s not going to be in in how the car feels aerodynamically, because we’re not that good to be able to tell that,” he said.

“It’s just a matter whether it shows up on the speed chart. I don’t know about the other guys for sure, but I know that we have to do something different than what we’ve done in the past and certainly we’re trying that now.”

New rules package

Friday’s practice was also the first track time most teams have had with this year’s new aero rules for all road courses and most oval tracks measuring 1.058-mile or less in distance.

Cup cars are utilizing a simplified diffuser as well as the 2023 short track/road course splitter stuffers, removal of engine panel strakes, a 3-inch spoiler and simplified diffuser strakes.

While there were not many instances of cars running in a lot of traffic in the 50-minute practice – certainly nothing like race conditions – Hamlin said it was possible to tell a small difference with the new package.

“I would say that it was probably a little bit better in traffic, very small from what I could tell, nothing earth-shattering,” he said.

“If they’re equal cars, obviously it’s going to be tough to get around anyone, but I think it seems like package-wise, maybe just a slight bit of change better.”

Asked how drivers or fans could judge the effects from Sunday’s race, Hamlin said, “Well, I think I can safely say it’s not going to be worse than what we had. What we had was really, really bad for sure.

“This is a 10-percent fix. Like back in the old hay days where aerodynamics didn’t matter which is 0, and what we had was 100, you know this is like a 90. So, it’s going to be a very, very small change.

“But anything that can allow us to run closer to each other, to cross each other’s wake without the air-blocking that we’ve seen over the last few weeks, I think that will be a good thing.”

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