DOVER, Del. — Denny Hamlin crossed Dover International Speedway off the meager list of tracks where he had yet to win a NASCAR race, then turned his ambitions toward one more goal he'd like to scratch off the docket.
Pushing 40, Hamlin's first Cup Series championship is within his grasp — and he might never be better.
"I'm in the prime of my career right now," Hamlin said, "and I've got things rolling."
Hamlin tamed the concrete mile oval that gave him fits for 15 years and zipped past Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps left to win Saturday's race.
Hamlin had been 0-for-28 at Dover, the kind of losing streak that had him studying the runs of more successful JGR teammates Truex and Kyle Busch to pick up tips on how best to win at the track. He learned from them, then beat them in the No. 11 Toyota, though Truex's runner-up finish and Busch's third-place showing gave JGR a great result in the first of two races this weekend at Dover.
"People always ask what your least favorite track is, and I say Dover just because I'm not that good," Hamlin said. "I love the track; I just haven't been very good here."
Hamlin matched Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick for the lead in victories this season with six, matching his total from last year and closing within two of his career high set in 2010, when he finished as the runner-up in the season championship battle.
Hamlin opened this season by winning the Daytona 500 for the third time in five years. After NASCAR returned from a two-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he added wins at Darlington Raceway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Kansas Speedway to catapult toward the kind of sensational run he's never had in an otherwise stellar career.
"There's been no year where it's been like this," Hamlin said. "Every week. It's literally every single week. We set some lofty goals at the beginning of the year to try to win 10 races. It's still achievable. We should have more than six easily."
He just had to mute the victory celebration. Hamlin was ordered by crew chief Chris Gabehart to spare their Camry from a burnout because the car is needed again Sunday. Hamlin then went from the car to carhop, laughing as he said he needed to order milkshakes for the crew prepping the car late into the night.
But is a championship on the menu?
Including his runner-up finish in 2010, Hamlin has finished fifth or better in the season standings five times, including fourth last season. He has even become ambivalent toward his growing checkered flag collection because "we're winning so much now." He'd like to excuse himself from the list of greatest drivers to never win it all, but he's on it for now.
Hamlin has 43 career wins, which puts him behind Junior Johnson (50) for most Cup Series victories without a championship. Once again, though, Hamlin has at least positioned himself as one of the favorites to be among the final four who compete for the title come November in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
"Our process is working right now," Hamlin said.
He was dominant in Dover with wins in the first two stages, and he led a race-high 115 laps. Hamlin never lost the faith when 2017 Cup Series champion Truex controlled most of the final third of the race, believing he could nip his teammate and earn the playoff points that could make him a lock for Phoenix.
"We just took that whole last stage to get back to him, but I was confident," Hamlin said.
Truex, in the top 10 for the sixth race in a row, snapped a streak of five straight third-place finishes. Truex, who has three career Dover wins, blamed Stewart-Haas Racing's Aric Almirola for ruining his day.
"Every time I tried to move up and get some air in my car, he'd just slide up in front of me like an idiot," Truex said.
Busch, the reigning Cup Series champion who also won the 2015 title, earned his 11th top-10 result this year, though he hasn't won since the 2019 season finale.
Harvick, on the brink of clinching the regular-season title, was fourth. Chase Elliott, coming off a win last Sunday in the first Cup Series race held on Daytona International Speedway's road course, finished fifth. SHR's Clint Bowyer was sixth for the third straight race.
Jimmie Johnson finished seventh and inched his way into the 16th and final playoff spot with two races left before the field is set. William Byron lost 28 points on Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, to fall out of the playoff grid.
There is only Sunday's race at Dover and next week on the traditional tri-oval at Daytona to set the playoff field.
Johnson has a record 11 Cup Series wins at Dover, and the track honored him as much as possible under the restrictions related to the pandemic, which included no fans attending. Johnson stopped by the plaque on Dover's victory lane that called him "The Monster Mile Master." A road outside the front stretch's grandstands, previously known as Finish Line Drive, has been renamed Jimmie Johnson Drive. And a billboard overlooking the second turn proclaimed simply, "Thanks, Jimmie."
"We have something to build on tonight, and we will come back tomorrow and have something left for them," said Johnson, who in his final year as a full-time Cup Series driver seems a long shot to break his tie with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most NASCAR titles and win a record-breaking eighth championship.
As for Hamlin, this might be the year he finally gets one.
"I know that we are a championship team regardless of whether we have the trophy or not," he said. "We're plenty capable. It's just a tough business when it comes down to it. When you run 36 (races), it comes down to one."