Hamlin’s NASCAR championship moment has yet to arrive. Set to enter a new world of team ownership, will it finally be delivered on Sunday?
Enough has been said and written about how 2020 has been…tough. Sports have done their part to ease the blow while trying a role in the changes the year’s sense of reckoning has brought to us. The championships the year has offered to us have provided their share of inspiring moments, particularly in well-deserving veterans earning their first championships. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble. Los Angeles Dodgers old (Clayton Kershaw) and new (Anthony Davis) brought the World Series and NBA Finals’ prizes back to the west coast.
Denny Hamlin could well be next at the NASCAR Cup Series’ Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC).
Hamlin has been a Cup Series staple since 2005. Right from the get-go, it was clear that he was going to a force to be reckoned with on the premier circuit. A midseason replacement in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11, Hamlin earned three top-ten finishes in his first six career races. In his first full-time season, he was the first rookie to qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs (then known as the Chase for the Nextel Cup) and came home third.
Since then, he and the No. 11 team have accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish on the Cup Series level. He owns three victories in the iconic Daytona 500, including the most recent pair, and has been a playoff driver in all but one of his full-time seasons (the exception being an injury-shortened campaign in 2013). He even dominated the virtual Cup circuit, winning two races in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series held during the COVID-19-induced pause.
All that’s missing is an elusive Cup Series championship. We on the east coast know all about superstars earning all but that final trophy hoist. Rangers fans recently had to bid farewell to Henrik Lundqvist with a Stanley Cup celebration. Patrick Ewing came up short in a 1994 NBA Finals visit (missing another five years later due to injury).
It’s cruelly ironic that it seems like the more that Hamlin has accomplished, the more questions he has had to field about the vacancy in his trophy case. 2020 has truly been one for the ages when it comes to Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota team and, on, paper, missing out on the title would sting. Seven races have ended with Hamlin in victory lane, second-best on the circuit to only Kevin Harvick’s nine. On paper, missing out on a championship in a season like that would certainly sting. True to the “everything but a title” trope, Hamlin has come tantalizingly, deservedly close to a championship, only to be denied by misfortune or forces beyond his control. He won a season-best eight races and finished no worse than 12th over the first nine playoff races, but contact in the Homestead-Miami-based finale with Greg Biffle caused a spin that relegated him to a 14th-place finish. Jimmie Johnson went home in the runner-up spot, giving him enough points to overtake Hamlin for the title.
But Hamlin wants to make it clear: he believes that this 2020 season no matter what happens on Sunday.
“It’s not whether you win this weekend or not,” Hamlin said earlier this week. “The championship is not necessarily an indicative measuring stick of your whole year. If you get to the final four, that is a measuring stick that you’ve had a successful year.”
“This is going to be a great weekend that we’re going to live with the result no matter what it is, and I just want to enjoy it and have fun with it.
It’s different, but we’ve adapted all year. It won’t hurt us to adapt for one more week.”
Hamlin further stressed that an appearance in the championship quartet is no cause for disappointment. This is the fourth time he has appeared in the group since elimination rounds were introduced to the postseason in 2014. That includes the two most recent editions, though Hamlin has been relegated to fourth each time.
“Certainly, I believe that there’s validity in saying that a Championship 4 appearance is a successful season. I know that it’s our goal for our 11 car when we put on the chalkboard of what we need to get done this year, it’s always make to it to the Final Four. It’s never win a championship. It used to be win a championship because you had to put all those other pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship because it was a 35, 36‑week body of work.”
“When you get to the Final Four, it means, okay, you’re in the top 16, you’ve made it through the rounds…It’s a very worthy four, but certainly, I think that our goal is always to make the Final Four. It’s never to actually win the championship.”
On the NASCAR circuit, Hamlin does have some strong company. Some have compared him to long-time racer Mark Martin, who came home in the Cup Series standings’ runner-up spot on five occasions. Hamlin moved passed Martin on the all-time Cup wins list with his 41st victory at Pocono Raceway back in June. In that same race, Hamling joined Jeff Gordon as the only six-time winner in Long Pond.
True to this form of acceptance and determination, Hamlin sees any comparison to Martin, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, only as a compliment.
“I never would consider any comparison to Mark Martin an insult,” he said. “I’ll take those comparisons all day because the guy is a badass race car driver that nobody wanted to face week in and week out, nobody. Not Dale Earnhardt, nobody wanted to face Mark Martin”
I get it, (championships are) very, very important. It’s where I’m at the sport’s highest level, most people gauge your success level or how good you are off of championships, but I also know that my competitors will probably say that I’m one of the toughest competitors and toughest guys to beat and that’s all I really care about is having the respect of them and knowing that week in and week out I can go and compete for race wins, and knowing that over the last two years, ain’t nobody won any more. I like where I’m at.”
Hamlin is instead pleased to focus on team accomplishments that have put him back in the ranks of NASCAR’s elite. It starts at the top of the pit box under the oversight of crew chief Chris Gabehart, who previously oversaw victorious JGR efforts at the Xfinity level. Since he and Hamlin joined forces last season, the two have combined for 13 wins.
One of those races was the Phoenix event last season, when the track in the desert held the penultimate date on the Cup Series schedule. In dire need of a win…he was 20 points behind the points-based cutoff at the start of the afternoon…Hamlin would go on to lead all but four of the final 136 laps to earn a victory in an encased space. Thanks to adjustments made by the team, he went on to lead all but four of the final 136 laps, beating out fellow Gibbs competitor Kyle Busch.
Things are a little different for Hamlin and the field, considering that there will be no qualifying or practice in the leadup to the Phoenix race. But the confidence his team has instilled in him has provided plenty of faith in what could go down as one of the biggest race of his career.
“I know that our team was capable of (last year’s Phoenix race),” Hamling said. “It was like, wow, they needed to bring it and they brought it, and I have no doubt that this weekend will be no different, that every effort will be put on us as there was last year when we had to lock ourselves in.”
“It’s a little different this year in the Final Four being that all the resources within JGR we’ve got working on our race car and focusing on our race car. Yeah, it’s encouraging for me to especially go to a track that we had to win last year and got it done to again this year having to win to get it done.”
No matter what happens on Sunday, it feels like the end of an era for Hamlin in the sense that the Phoenix race will be his final event solely as a driver. Next year, Hamlin begins an ambitious endeavor through the world of team ownership, uniting with NBA legend Michael Jordan to form a new team, 23XI Racing. Bubba Wallace will drive the team’s debut vehicle, a Toyota branded with Jordan’s famous No. 23.
Don’t let Hamlin’s satisfaction with a final four appearance fool you, though. He knows what a championship can do for his legacy, how it can firmly entrench him in NASCAR’s ultimate elite. With Harvick gone, Hamlin and his dominant season have a chance to win what’s perhaps the ultimate Cup Series title, one where chances for on-track adjustments are few and far between. The possibility just may be enough for Hamlin to go full-Last Dance Jordan…and take things personally.
“I’ve had so many failures that it’s created a logbook of things that I need to be aware of this time around. Certainly I believe that there’s something to being older and the mental side of things and having that advantage,” he said. “I just want to work hard and make sure that I’m as informed as I possibly can be, be prepared for anything that gets thrown my way, and as you get older, you learn to identify mistakes that you made in the past that you now need to account for when you are working towards being a champion.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags