Denny Hamlin has been one of NASCAR’s best drivers for more than a decade.
He’s accumulated 50 wins since joining the Cup Series full-time in 2006, and has reached the playoffs in 17 of those seasons. But the closest the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has come to glory was as the runner-up in 2010.
Hamlin, 42, is the third-seeded driver entering the playoffs, which begin Sunday at Darlington. He believes his team has more going well than ever before, but knows that at a certain point, there’s only so much he can control.
“It’s so circumstantial when it’s just a race and you just never know what can happen in a race, that you choose to have a shot at it again,” Hamlin said Thursday in Uptown Charlotte. “If I keep putting myself in the final four, I’m eventually going to have a shot — a really good shot — at a championship.
“But I just feel like, whether it be pit crew, whether it be speed of the cars, it’s all put together a little bit more this year than in years past.”
A three-time Daytona 500 champion, Hamlin has consistently been one of the sport’s most accomplished drivers. He just hasn’t had luck on his side in the playoffs, like when his ignition failed at Martinsville in 2021.
“I honestly feel like the last three shots I’ve had at a title, I’ve done everything I could do. There’s nothing more I could have done. We either didn’t have the speed or the execution,” Hamlin said. “If we get to the final four, I’m not worried about being at a deficit. I think the pit crew’s better. … All the pieces of the puzzle are there. There’s no excuses, for sure.”
If Hamlin reaches the Cup Series championship in Phoenix on Nov. 5, he knows his preparation for the race will need to be as strong as his raw talents. And in the end, another driver could just be a little bit better on that day.
A driver and an owner
Hamlin, who co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, holds a unique position in NASCAR. Three of the field’s top seven drivers represent Joe Gibbs Racing, including Hamlin, while both Bubba Wallace — making his playoff debut — and Tyler Reddick will be representing the team Hamlin co-owns.
“He brings a lot of insight, knowledge and experience from things he’s dealing with on the (Joe Gibbs Racing) side of things to make our program better,” Wallace said. “There have been a handful of races where the 23 and 45 have been better than the 11 and JGR cars. It’s a great partnership that we’re continuing to work out the kinks and make the most of it.”
Joey Logano, 2018 and 2022 Cup Series champion, noted that there are inherently risks with stepping up to own a team while still racing. But, he said, there’s nobody who understands the sport better than the men who get behind the wheel of these cars. It’s no surprise that Hamlin’s team is already finding success.
“A race car driver is the only person in this sport that has the ability to see every facet of how this sport is run,” Logano said. “So there’s a clear advantage for a race car driver to own a race team and be able to really be successful with it. Denny’s taken it and really made the most of it.”