PHOENIX — Over the course of Denny Hamlin’s 16-year full-time NASCAR Cup Series career, he has accomplished more than many racers could even dream of. Three Daytona 500s, 46 career wins, to name a few of his standout performances.
Still lurking, though, is his first championship.
But over the years, Hamlin, now 40, has grown to accept the fact he may never win a Cup title. Quite simply, he’s at peace with that.
“This year, I’ve been more comfortable with who I am and the accomplishments we’ve had,” Hamlin said on Thursday (Nov. 4) at Championship 4 Media Day. “I’ve accomplished way more than I ever would have imagined. I’m content and I’m at peace with myself and my career. I could quit on Monday, maybe I will, maybe I won’t and be happy with everything I’ve done. I’m at peace with whatever the result is.”
Hamlin hasn’t had a shortage of storylines in 2021. Not only did he start up 23XI Racing with co-owner Michael Jordan, but he went winless in the regular season, despite battling head-to-head with Kyle Larson for the regular season championship. Along the way, Hamlin had a dustup with Cup rookie Chase Briscoe following the inaugural Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course event, as the No. 11 Toyota was dumped from the lead coming to the white flag.
Once the playoffs began, the No. 11 team started off with a victory, with Hamlin winning his third Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He backed up that win by winning the opening race in the Round of 12 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, clinching a spot into the Round of 8.
That’s when things got interesting.
By getting caught up in two incidents at Texas Motor Speedway and finishing 11th, Hamlin held a single-digit advantage over the cutline. However, while most of his competition ran into trouble at Kansas Speedway, the No. 11 stayed steady and finished fifth. Going to Martinsville Speedway, a place the Virginia native has mastered over the years, the No. 11 car was 32 points above the cutline.
Hamlin started at the rear of the field due to an inspection failure, but he methodically made his way through the pack until he got sent to the back for a pit road speeding penalty. Again, the No. 11 car drove through the field time, this time reaching the lead on lap 389. From there, he was a constant frontrunner until Alex Bowman turned Hamlin with six laps remaining.
Despite being the one to get the boot, Hamlin was heavily booed following the race. He believes that’s a case of fans not getting over his incident with Chase Elliott in the Martinsville playoff race from four years ago.
“That place was fucking on fire after the race,” Hamlin said. “That’s great for our sport. From my standpoint, all I’m doing is getting fuel the whole time and so it’s like, ‘This is a fucking good thing.’”
Hamlin confirmed that Bowman has not reached out to him yet, nor does he think he will.
“Guys aren’t men anymore,” he said.
But how does Hamlin, someone who was in prime position to win at Martinsville, shake that weekend off as he enters a championship battle later that week?
Hamlin said, “How do I get up to take my kids to school every morning at 7:30? How do I go to 23XI [Racing] and work for a couple of days in the middle of the week during a playoff run? I live in chaos. My life is chaos, and I thrive under chaos. You probably can ask Kyle (Larson), the more shit that is stirred up around me, the more I come at it.”
It’s safe to say that Hamlin embraces the chaos in his life.
“To me, it’s fuel,” he said. “I have so much fuel in my tank right now from motivation. There’s a lot of motivation in there.
“I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville. Starting in the back, going to the back again, driving all the way to the front and winning that race would be like the ole foot on the throat heading into this weekend. I feel like that momentum was taken away from us. The momentum in my head swings back around to now I’m ultra motivated because I love the feeling of proving people wrong.”
Entering the championship race at Phoenix, Hamlin isn’t letting the moment get too big for him. This is the third year in a row he’s been part of the Championship 4, adding on to his final four run in the inaugural winner-take-all format in 2014. Add that to his 2010 run, in which the No. 11 team squandered the points lead over the final two races to Jimmie Johnson, and the driver believes he’s in a good spot this time around.
And compared to last year, where Hamlin statistically had the 12th fastest car on 750 horsepower tracks, he enters Phoenix having the fastest on said tracks this year. My, what a difference a year can make.
Being an analytics guy, that’s added fuel. He believes it’s his best shot at winning a championship.
“I feel like 2019 was the other year where I felt like we were fast enough, good enough, prepared and ready, we’re good,” Hamlin said. “We had a shot and made a bad strategic call with a piece of tape. 2020 was very different because we weren’t as fast. At the shorter tracks, my team was trying to convince me for week and week and weeks that we’re not as bad on the short tracks as you think. I knew I was better. I drove the cars all year.
“The roles are reversed this time where I understand we’ve been in contention to win most of these short tracks. I’m confident from that standpoint. The only thing I’m not confident in is the things I cannot control. That’s the only thing that worries me, the things I can’t control. But how can you let those things worry you because you cannot control them.
“I was very content in 2019 and ’20 leaving the racetrack saying, ‘I did my job to the best of my ability. I drove the car as fast I possibly could; I would not change a thing, and we didn’t win for various reasons. I hope that I do my job again. If I do my job and don’t make any mistakes, I will have a chance.”
Should Hamlin win, would he actually consider having a mic drop and hanging up the helmet?
“Maybe,” he said with a blank stare.