Like a Major League star who has never been able to master hitting the curve ball, ever since he reached the Sprint Cup level Denny Hamlin's Achilles heel has been his performance at restrictor-plate tracks.
Prior to 2014, Hamlin's record at Daytona was a pitiful two top-fives in 16 starts at the 2.5-mile oval.
Also prior to 2014, Hamlin's record at Talladega was almost as dismal: three top-fives in 16 starts.
Add those up and in 32 career starts at 'Dega and Daytona prior to 2014, Hamlin had just five top-fives in total.
One of NASCAR's brightest stars could tame short tracks (seven wins across Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond), flat mile-long tracks (three between Loudon and Phoenix), one at one of NASCAR's oldest tracks (the 1.366-mile Darlington), 1.5-mile mid-range tracks (six between Atlanta, Texas, Homestead and Kansas), and at 2- and 2.5-mile tracks (six wins between Michigan and Pocono).
All told, Hamlin came into 2014 with 23 wins in his Cup career—and not one was at a plate track.
Not even close.
But like a light being turned on after the bulb was replaced, Hamlin has suddenly solved the mystery of plate racing in 2014.
Not only did he win the preseason Sprint Unlimited, the second of the two Budweiser Duels and then finished a career-best second in the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin added to his burgeoning resume of success at plate tracks with a win in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega.
So now Hamlin can cross a plate win—which came in the 300th career start of his Cup career—off his bucket list.
"We've come a long way in these types of races," Hamlin said, per a NASCAR transcript of his post-race media interview session. "We couldn't even finish 22nd in superspeedway races for the longest time. But I drive these races a lot differently than I used to, for sure. I try to be more patient. That’s why I think our success has started to ramp up on superspeedways. We've really kind of come into our own."
But even more, what he learned and what he did Sunday will likely serve Hamlin well going forward, especially in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
For if you look back at his eight previous Chase races at 'Dega, Hamlin has finished 20th or worse in five of them, including 38th last year (after finishing 34th in last year's spring race, his first back on the circuit after missing the previous four races after the devastating wreck at Fontana, where he suffered a compression fracture in his back).
"For God sakes, after nine years you would think I'd come close to winning one, but I don't think it's just random, especially after what we did in Daytona," Hamlin said. "I think it's a lot of different patience and different things I've learned just with experience.
"I think I drive superspeedway races a lot different than I used to, for sure. I'm not always the guy making the move now. I'm more the staying in line and trying to be patient and just do whatever the line I'm in is going to do."
Hamlin becomes the eighth different race winner this season with his triumph at Talladega, and he now has a better-than-even chance of making this year's revised Chase format.
"We've kind of been preaching and beating up how we are on all the other racetracks," Hamlin said. "You know, coming to this racetrack you know it's an equalizer and you've got as good a shot as anyone. You've got to take advantage of these moments and these types of racetracks when you feel like you're a little bit off on the others, and so we were able to do that today.
"Now it buys us some time to get our program where it needs to be for September when it really counts."
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All quotes in this story were provided via post-race transcript from NASCAR