Denny Hamlin’s season is 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 apiece .
Last year, Hamlin was the only driver without a DNF. This year, he had four retirements in the first nine races.
But, according to NASCAR’s weekly penalty reports, Hamlin leads a category.
Hamlin has been cited 29 times in the first 19 races of 2022. That’s five penalties more than the second most penalized driver, teammate Kyle Busch. Busch amassed 24 penalties.
The graph below shows the 17 most penalized drivers by NASCAR statistics. I have highlighted the Toyota teams in green. All six appear in this chart.
There’s an interesting mix of riding experience and ownership level, including five former Cup Series champions. The top five names include two experienced drivers from a top-tier team, one rookie and two drivers from less well-funded teams.
According to the same source, the Cup Series has imposed 513 penalties so far this year.
But not all penalties are created equal.
A driver rarely stops while the pit road is closed by mistake. A team manager usually calls a driver to pit road early when the advantage of extra time on pit road outweighs the penalty.
This happens often.
Of the 571 penalties in total, 242 are for having taken a dive before the opening of pit road. I removed these penalties on the grounds that they are strategic and not mistakes.
Likewise, teams received penalties for stopping early and for something else (like too many crew members on the wall) in about a dozen cases. I removed those secondary penalties that seemed intentional in the same way as stopping before pit road is open.
That leaves 257 unintended penalties. If penalties continue at the same rate for the remainder of the 2022 season, there would be 486 unintentional penalties by the end of 2022. IN 2021, drivers incurred 445 unintentional penalties.
This tally includes pre-race penalties and in-race penalties, but not penalties given the week after a race. I will come back to that in a moment.
Hamlin’s team has incurred the most penalties before the pits open with 14. He has had just six such penalties for the whole of 2021.
One of the reasons the number is high this year is that Hamlin has been involved in 11 crashes, spins or stalls. Again, points leader Chase Elliott too, but he doesn’t even make the chart with just four unintentional penalties.
I’ve traced the revised data below, again highlighting Toyota drivers in green. Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch fall off the chart, each having just five unintentional penalties. All four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers remain.
Team Hamlin’s 12 unintentional penalties move them from first place to tied for second with Kyle Busch. Using the same algorithm, Hamlin’s team had 11 unintentional penalties in 2021.
Most teams end up on the left side of this table due to speeding on pit road, the most common penalty incurred by the driver. BJ McLeod has nine such penalties in just 15 races – the most of any Cup Series driver. Corey LaJoie comes in second with eight – although LaJoie ran all 19 races.
Hamlin has just four speeding penalties in 2022, all of which occurred in the first 11 races of the year. Two of Hamlin’s speeding penalties came after he was trapped from a top-five position.
Hamlin is tied for the fastest penalties of any driver in the top 20 in driver points with Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon and Daniel Suárez. Just over halfway through the season, Hamlin has amassed two-thirds of his total speeding penalties 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 pit crew members for four races.
The view at 35,000 feet
The table below summarizes the two pre-race penalties, 10 unintentional race penalties and one post-race penalty, as well as Hamlin’s finish and finishing status for each race.
The total comes to six driver penalties (four for speeding on pit road and two for crossing more than three pits) and seven crew penalties: unapproved adjustments (two), interference with equipment (two), too many crew on the wall (one), bad supply (one) and the loose wheel.
Most unintentional penalties are mental errors. Toyota teams have had a rollercoaster year, brilliant at some tracks and disappointing at others. Toyota expected to be at a disadvantage in the first part of this season. Without practice, on-track results are highly simulation dependent. With six cars versus 15 chartered cars each for Chevy and Ford, Toyota has far less data. The validation of their simulations is slower.
Hamlin has the added burden of being both driver and owner. The signing of Tyler Reddick this week showed just how involved Hamlin is in running 23XI. Another distraction is Hamlin’s ongoing feud with Ross Chastain.
The time Hamlin can save on pit road by using alternate pit stop choreography isn’t much of an advantage if it just offsets an increased number of penalties.
Last year at this time, Hamlin led the points standings, two points ahead of Chase Elliott.
This year, perhaps the biggest challenge for Hamlin — and his team — is not fighting.