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NASCAR: Hamlin having his best season as he chases first Cup title

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Monster Energy Cup driver Denny Hamlin in the garage at Talladega Superspeedway in 2017. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Denny Hamlin has won 42 Cup Series races and finished in the top five in points four times. But, he's still looking for his first championship.

Could that change this year? Through 19 of 36 scheduled races, Hamlin already has a Series-high five victories. Although he is fourth in total points, if the playoffs started today, he would be second based on bonus points for his success this year.

His most recent win came July 23 at Kansas, where he outraced the top two points leaders: No. 1, Kevin Harvick, and No. 2, Brad Keselowski. Harvick was fourth in Kansas and Keselowski was second.

"I mean, I love winning," Hamlin said in a video conference with reporters. "I just want to get as many wins as I possibly can. Hopefully, I win the last race of the season. That's the goal."

If Hamlin can get to the Round of Eight, he'll get another chance to race at Kansas with playoff stakes on the line. Also, there's a Round of 12 race at Talladega on Oct. 4, where he has five finishes in the top six in the last nine races at the speedway.

"But, there are no guarantees," Hamlin said. "We're putting together a very, very solid season in many, many aspects. That to me is a great season. If we can somehow get to the final four, we have accomplished our goal.

"From that point on, the last 301 laps, whatever it is at Phoenix, we'll give it our best shot and see where we stack up."

Hamlin said he doesn't necessarily gain an edge just because he's won as often as he has this season.

"I mean, because every track is so different, especially with like no practice, it's like, 'Oh, boy, this season is going to come down to really a big old crapshoot at the end.'"

So far, in the 15 races since the Cup Series returned from a shutdown forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvick and Hamlin have been the dominant drivers. They've scored a combined eight victories — four each. Hamlin also won the season-opening race at Daytona before the shutdown.

"I think we're doing a great job of putting ourselves in good position to win races," Hamlin said. "We really could have a boatload of wins right now. It's incredible."

Hamlin said his crew chief, Chris Gabehart, isn't looking to slow down, even with a playoff spot clinched.

"Chris set a very lofty goal at the end of the season how many races he thinks we're going to win," he said. "I said, 'You're nuts.' I'm thinking, 'We are a few blown tires really away from it happening.’”

Still, Hamlin can't deny how well he has raced. He acknowledged he's running as well as he ever has.

"I mean, 2010 was a great run with eight wins," Hamlin said. "I mean, man, we're more competitive week in, week out now than what we were in 2010. I would say some of our races in 2010 were more dominant but I feel the field was more stretched out a little bit, where we would hit a setup and take off.

“All these cars with the aerodynamic package that keeps us closer, it's tougher to really dominate races. I certainly feel like I'm in contention more than I was in 2010."

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.