Winning a championship is the pinnacle of accomplishment in professional sports. Championships validate an athlete’s hard work, confirm their superiority and, in many sports, offer lucrative opportunities.
Denny Hamlin won’t shy away from admitting there’s an allure to winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship. At the same time, Hamlin’s approach is different when compared to most drivers. Hamlin doesn’t like to look too far ahead. He doesn’t overthink things and in a style befitting one of NASCAR’s veteran competitors, Hamlin keeps things in perspective. You can be a great driver without winning a championship.
Hamlin just didn’t think he’d be the one facing such a possibility with his 40th birthday approaching.
Who could blame him? Hamlin has driven for powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing since the end of the 2005 season. The Chesterfield, Va., native came agonizingly close to ending Jimmie Johnson’s run of five straight titles a year early when in 2010, Hamlin carried eight wins and a 33-point lead into the season’s final two races.
An unfortunate late-race pit call at Phoenix Raceway robbed Hamlin of valuable points and momentum heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when it all went to hell for Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota team.
Hamlin qualified 37th. Johnson qualified sixth. Johnson crucially took the lead on lap 71, earning five bonus points on his way to a second-place finish. Hamlin never led, finished 14th and fell to second in the standings. Still, Hamlin was barely 30 years old. He’d won more races than anyone else and most pundits figured it was only a matter of time before a championship trophy was on his mantle.
Hamlin has more than waited out Johnson, but he’s watched Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano join Johnson as series champions.
Now, Hamlin doesn’t have time on his side. He does, however, have a car and team that can perform better than any he’s had since 2010. Additionally, Hamlin is older, wiser and maybe a bit more patient.
He won six of the season’s first 25 races — including his third Daytona 500 — and posted a career-best average finish of 9.0. Along with point leader Harvick and rising star Chase Elliott, Hamlin is again pegged as a championship favorite.
“I mean, 2010 was a great run with eight wins,” Hamlin said. “We’re more competitive week-in, week-out now than what we were in 2010. I would say some of our races in 2010 were more dominant, but I feel the field was more stretched out a little bit, where we’d hit a setup and take off.
“All these cars with the aerodynamic package that keeps us closer, it’s tougher to really dominate races. I certainly feel like I’m in contention more than I was in 2010.”
He surprised many when, in a mid-August road course race at Daytona Int’l Speedway, Hamlin took his third second-place finish in four races in stride. It was enough for Hamlin to admit he simply wanted to keep Elliott “honest” through the race’s final dash to the finish, instead of a desperate move a younger Hamlin might’ve tried.
“I mean, I love winning,” Hamlin said. “I want to get as many wins as I possibly can. Hopefully, I win the last race of the season. That’s the goal, but there are no guarantees. We’re putting together a very, very solid season in many, many aspects. That, to me, is a great season.”
When he became the fourth driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s in February, the whispers of Hamlin being NASCAR’s greatest driver without a championship grew louder. His résumé has only one hole: 42 wins, 33 poles and a top-10 finish in more than half of his career starts show how consistently competitive Hamlin has been since he took over the No. 11 car.
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