TALLADEGA — Forgive Denny Hamlin for considering the first part of today's YellaWood 500 as, well, kind of boring.
He and crew chief Chris Gabehart developed a strategy of staying in the back of the pack and allowing other drivers to pick off each other with the type of wrecks that often happen at Talladega. Hamlin and Gabehart believed that they could finish high enough to earn enough points to advance in the Cup Series playoffs.
"Yeah, it was certainly uneventful for 490 miles for us," Hamlin said. "We didn't do a whole lot."
After that? Yeah, there was plenty of excitement, and in the end, the strategy not only gave Hamlin enough points for the Cup standings but also helped Hamlin score a Talladega Superspeedway win for the second time in his career.
"Well, if it wasn't a playoff race, I'm not sure we would have had the patience to do it the way we did it," Gabehart said. "The goal wouldn't have been near as obvious as it was given our points position. … If this is race 13, whatever it was, Talladega one, you're trying to win stage points, playoff points because you don't know how the rest of the season is going to play out."
Gabehart acknowledged it was a bit of a gamble.
"You never know," he said. "You get to the end of these things, staring down the barrel of having to pass 25 cars, you could just as likely wreck passing them as not, so it's tough."
Gabehart added that he might not've done this with a different driver.
"But, with Denny it's unique," he said. "This is what I really tried to coach him up on all week, was while your odds aren't great at a place like Talladega and Daytona of getting through a race unscathed, Denny's instincts produce odds that in my view are better than anyone else's at getting through the race unscathed if he simply pays attention to his instincts and doesn't let the stress of the situation alter his instincts.
"That won't ensure that you get through the end. Certainly in our points scenario, my message to him was to do what you normally do at these plate races and we will statistically have the best shot of getting to the end of it with a chance to perform. Lo and behold, that's what happened."
As cars got caught in various wrecks — there were three in the first 12 laps alone — Hamlin kept calculating where he could finish in a worst-case scenario.
By the last laps, Hamlin realized he had a shot at winning, so he raced more aggressively.
"In my mind I needed to pick up about 20 points over the next two weeks to lock myself into the top eight," he said. "I just kept watching as the wrecks were happening, kind of counting points.
"I hate that's the way I had to do it. You got to play the game the way it's designed to be played."