Denny Hamlin and the penalty box – NASCAR talk

Denny Hamlin’s season has been a study in contradictions. Two race wins guarantee a playoff spot, but Hamlin is 19th in points with just four top 10s. Compare those numbers to Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain, who are tied for the most top 10s with 13 each.

Last year, Hamlin was the only driver without a DNF. This year he had four DNFs in the first nine races.

But according to NASCAR’s weekly penalty reports, Hamlin does lead in one category.

Penalties.

Hamlin was cited 29 times in the first 19 races of 2022. That’s five penalties more than the next most penalized driver, teammate Kyle Busch. Bush has accumulated 24 penalties.

The graphic below shows the 17 most penalized drivers according to NASCAR statistics. I marked the Toyota teams in green. All six appear in this graph.

There is an interesting mix of driving experience and level of ownership, including five former Cup Series champions. The first five names include two experienced drivers from a top-level team, one rookie and two drivers from lower-funded teams.

According to the same source, the Cup Series has awarded 513 penalties so far this year.

But not all punishments are created equal.

Intentional penalties?

A driver rarely pits while the pit road is closed by mistake. The crew chief usually calls the pilot on the road earlier when the advantage of the extra time on the road outweighs the penalty.

There’s a lot going on.

Out of a total of 571 penalties, 242 were for pitting before the road opened. I removed these penalties on the grounds that they were strategic rather than mistakes.

Likewise, teams received penalties for early boxing and for something else (like too many crew members over the wall) on about a dozen occasions. I removed these minor penalties that appeared to be intentional, in the same way pitting is done before opening the road.

That leaves 257 unintentional penalties. If penalties continue at the same rate until the end of the 2022 season, there will be 486 unintentional penalties by the end of 2022. IN 2021, drivers received 445 unintentional penalties.

This amount includes penalties before and during the race, but not penalties assessed a week after the race. I’ll get to them in a bit.

Hamlin’s team had the most penalties in the pit before opening the road with 14. He had just six such penalties for all of 2021.

One reason the number is high this year is that Hamlin has been involved in 11 accidents, spins or stops. Then again, so is point leader Chase Elliott, but he doesn’t even make the chart with just four unforced errors.

I’ve redrawn the revised data below, again highlighting the Toyota drivers in green. Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch are off the charts with just five unforced errors each. All four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers remain.

The most penalized drivers in 2022, when only unintentional penalties are taken into account

Hamlin’s 12 unintentional team penalties drop him from first place to second place with Kyle Busch. Using the same algorithm, Hamlin’s team had 11 unintentional penalties in all of 2021.

Most teams end up on the left side of this chart due to speeding on the road, which is the most common penalty given to drivers. BJ McLeod has nine such penalties in just 15 races – the most of any driver in the Cup Series. Corey LaJoie is second with eight – although LaJoie has been in all 19 races.

Hamlin has just four speeding penalties in 2022, all of which have come in the first 11 races of the year. Two of Hamlin’s speeding penalties came after pitting from a top-five position.

Hamlin is tied for the most speeding penalties of any driver in the top 20 in driver points with Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon and Daniel Suarez. Just over halfway through the season, Hamlin has racked up two-thirds of his total speeding penalty for the entire 2021 season.

And then there’s Dover, where a wheel came off the car. Hamlin lost crew chief Chris Gabehart and two crew members for four races.

The view from 35,000 feet

The table below summarizes the two pre-race penalties, 10 unintentional race penalties and one post-race penalty, along with Hamlin’s finish and finish status for each race.

Table summarizing Denny Hamlin's 2022 penalties

A total of six driver penalties (four road speeding and two driving through more than three pits) and seven crew penalties: unapproved settings (two), interference with equipment (two), too much crew over the wall (one) , incorrect fueling (one) and the loose wheel.

Most unintentional penalties are mental errors. The Toyota teams have had a rollercoaster year, shining at some tracks and disappointing at others. Toyota expected to be at a disadvantage in the first part of this season. Without practice, track results depend heavily on simulation. With six cars compared to 15 charter cars for Chevy and Ford, Toyota has far less data. Validation of their simulations is slower.

Hamlin carries the added burden of being both driver and owner. The signing of Tyler Reddick this week showed how committed Hamlin is to running the 23XI. Hamlin’s ongoing feud with Ross Chastain is another distraction.

The time Hamlin can gain on pit road using alternate pit stop choreography isn’t much of an advantage if it just makes up for the increased number of penalties.

Last year at this time, Hamlin led the points standings, two points ahead of Chase Elliott.

This year, Hamlin’s – and his team’s – biggest challenge may be not to beat themselves.

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