HOMESTEAD, Fla – Heading into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Denny Hamlin had to be worried about if his days with Joe Gibbs Racing were numbered. He was approaching his late 30’s in terms of age and riding a winless streak that dated back to 2017. With a driver like Christopher Bell coming up and needing a place to go in 2020, Hamlin’s seat was growing warmer.
Another winless season in 2019 like he had in 2018 and his job could be in jeopardy. I mean, if you look at the preseason championship odds, Hamlin was listed with Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola at 22/1.
Denny Hamlin battles his teammate Martin Truex Jr. in last month’s playoff race at the Kansas Speedway
His zero wins in 2018 was the first year that he failed to score a single victory. His 10 top fives were the fewest since seven in 2014. His 17 top 10’s were the least amount for him since 2013. His 380 laps led were the fewest since 2013 and 2014.
With Kyle Busch making the Championship 4 in 2015, his title winning year, 2016, 2017 and 2018, no way JGR would cut ties with him. They just brought in Martin Truex Jr. who had won the 2017 championship and he himself making the final round in three of the last four years.
Erik Jones was still young and developing. He even won in 2018. All three would hold solid ground at JGR. Bell does too. What about Hamlin?
Then, he goes out and gets into a practice crash in Daytona and it’s one that Hamlin says got him the tongue lashing of all kinds from his boss Joe Gibbs.
“I’ve been part of the worst,” Hamlin says tongue lashing from Gibbs. “The worst was this year in Daytona. Literally, I mean, top lip gets trembling. I’m looking over at Coy, hoping he’s going to save me from this. But he’s not.
“Basically we had a practice plan, and I felt like I needed to get in the pack and draft. As soon as I made my way to the back of the pack, someone wrecked and I got in it. They were furious, to say the least, absolutely furious.
“He’s like, You’re going to pay for that car.”
Well, he silenced any doubters with his Daytona 500 triumph in February. It was his first win since the 2017 Southern 500. He became the first driver playoff eligible. Last Sunday, he became the last driver Championship eligible. Now, can he bookend his 2019 season with a win in the season opener as well as the season finale to take home his first Cup championship as a result?
Since the Championship 4 was adopted in 2014, the series champion has won the race at Homestead every year. That’s why Hamlin has to win on Sunday.
But, his season may already have been won even if he doesn’t earn a title. See, this is arguably Hamlin’s best season. He’s won six times, most since he won eight in 2010. He has career highs in 19 top five finishes and 23 top 10’s. He’s led 920 laps, most since 2012. He has a career best 9.5 average finishing spot too.
He won the Daytona 500, the Bristol Night race and is now looking for a championship. How great of a season is it for him to do all of this with his back against the wall?
“I think outside people have been more optimistic about my talents than maybe I have at times,” Hamlin said. “But there’s also times where I’ll do something, last week for instance, I mean, I’m pretty (expletive) good at this. I can do this.
“I know I’ve won big races. I stepped up to the plate when it’s really mattered. It hasn’t always equaled a championship, but I definitely think the narrative should be changed simply based off of last week. I mean, that was going to be our final race unless we won it.
“I think we’ve won Daytona 500 in the closest finish coming from behind on the final lap. I mean, those are clutch moments, right?
“I just think any time you have a goose egg in the big category, the championships, people will always put together, Well, why didn’t that happen? He choked in 2010.
“Well, in Phoenix I was kicking everyone’s ass, my car ran out of gas. Essentially I would have had to start my car in Homestead. Certainly I made terrible decisions in Homestead. I still had a very, very good chance to win it.
“That was one of the moments where I was so distraught from Phoenix, Homestead was a complete blur because I was so enraged, I can’t believe we’re in the situation, we should be able to cruise through this weekend. That was not having the mentality of, So what, now what. Can’t help what happened, let’s move on, figure out what we can do right now.”
Hamlin, says now that his confidence has never been higher.
No. Not even in 2010 when we were really fast every week.”