Denny Hamlin says he is surprised by his Joe Gibbs Racing team's strong form after winning three out of the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
Hamlin claimed his third win of the season last weekend at Darlington, tying reigning champion Jimmie Johnson for the most wins this year with both being the only ones to score more than one victory thus far. Following some poor finishes in the first five races, despite leading three of those, Hamlin's season took off with his win in the rain-delayed event at Martinsville, which was followed by his knee surgery to repair a torn ligament.
Only a few days after that he went on to finish the race at Phoenix, where besides the pain from his sore knee, he also suffered from electrical issues that kept him from scoring a good finish. He then bounced back to win at Texas again, then finished 11th at Richmond and won for the third time last week, moving up to sixth in the point standings.
Hamlin says he didn't expect to have this kind of success so early in the season, partly because his team is currently running the same cars that they used during last year's Chase. He says their victories show what they are capable of once they get to the final 10 races of the year where the title will be up for grabs. He is the only Cup driver who has been in the Chase in every year of his Cup career.
"I can't tell you how excited I am about us winning right now, because I know what our team is capable of by the time we hit Chase time," said Hamlin. "We're running pretty much last year's cars for the most part. We're just kind of easing our way into it.
"We didn't expect to have the success. We thought we could contend for race wins, maybe get one here or there the first 12. We really wanted to come on right after Indy, was our goal, to turn the light switch on and really go for it. We'll see what happens. I think that it's very encouraging for me that we're winning right now under the circumstances."
Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford is also confident about what the team can do later in the year when it comes down to the title-deciding playoff series. He says back at base the team is working on developments that will help them take even better cars to the Chase races.
"We're working on the back half of the season right now. Honestly, I'm surprised at how strong we are right now," said Ford. "Not to spill the beans, but we're working on Chase stuff right now. We're racing things that we were racing at the end of last year so we can concentrate on the later months of this year. I'm personally surprised that we're running as strong as we are."
Hamlin's victories this year have come at three completely different tracks and two of them have been at venues where he will return later this season during the Chase. He reckons his experience has allowed him to take a different approach into races, which is paying off.
"I've just learned you can win these races," says Hamlin. "You don't have to win 'em in the first half. Really, you just want to be somewhere around that top eight or so the first half, somewhere around the top five with a hundred to go. You don't need to panic when you're not in the lead the whole race.
"To me, that's just a different mindset that I've had, and it seems to work because I've had the equipment at the end when I needed it. When I needed to push it, the envelope, I had the car to do it, especially at the end."
The Virginia-born racer says his knee continues to recover and admits to feeling better in the car than out of it, where he is still limited to what he can do, including playing basketball which is how he picked up his injury this year.
"It really is pretty much like a physical therapy session in there with the cars that vibrate, you kind of have a little bit of vibration right there on the steering column, so I rest my leg against it, it kind of acts as a stem," said Hamlin. "It feels good after races. It's during the week that I'm laying around that it gets all stiff."
Besides Hamlin's wins, his JGR teammate Kyle Busch has also won for the organization, taking its tally to four victories this season, one more than Hendrick Motorsports has claimed in the first 11 races of the year.