AVONDALE, Ariz.—Denny Hamlin entered the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs as the favorite.
With one race remaining to decide the Championship Four, Hamlin is on the outside looking in.
Unless the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota wins in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 or Kyle Busch and Joey Logano have major issues during the race, this will mark the fifth season Hamlin hasn’t been contending for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“You adjust your expectations,” Hamlin said. “No matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure. We, as Mark Martin would say, we just didn’t score enough points. We had a great year, we won races, we led more laps than we have in a long time and more top fives than anybody in the series.
“It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not. I think you have to adjust that. One race, winner take all, or a three-race round – anything can happen, and it did for us.”
Although Hamlin boasts 36 victories in 504 Cup starts, will the 38-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver be content being the Mark Martin of his generation—the winningest driver in the series without a title?
“I think Mark Martin said it best, ‘You can still be respected and still have a really successful career without winning a championship,'" Hamlin replied. "I read that he thinks about, now that he’s 60 years old, he looks back and thinks 'Will a championship make any difference in my life right now?' He says, ‘No, it wouldn’t.’
“I’m at that point. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what I’m capable of, I think my competitors know what I’m capable of.”
Unlike Martin, who finished second in the standings five times, Hamlin’s defeats have been on the race track. In 1990, NASCAR docked Martin 46 points after he won at Richmond for the carburetor being improperly installed on the No. 6 Roush Racing Ford. In the penultimate race of 2002, Martin entered Rockingham trailing Tony Stewart by 146 points. Despite leading the most laps and finishing second, Martin was penalized 25 points for an illegal spring. He entered the season finale 112 points behind Stewart, who went on to win the title. Martin retired from full-time competition in 2013 at the age of 54.
Hamlin, who turns 39 later this month, has finished second in points just once, in the 2010 season. After winning at Texas, Hamlin entered Phoenix with a 33-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson. Despite leading 190 laps, Hamlin came to pit road in the closing circuits, while most other contenders stretched their fuel mileage. He finished 12th but watched his points lead shrink to 15 over Johnson.
In the season finale the following week, Hamlin qualified 37th, wrecked 25 laps into the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished 14th. Johnson came home second behind winner Carl Edwards and won the title by 39 points over Hamlin.
Nine years and four crew chiefs later, Hamlin indeed has had a comeback season under the direction of Chris Gabehart. He scored five wins—the most since 2010—but has accumulated more top fives (18, a career-best) and 22 top 10s and boasts a personal-best 9.7 average finish.
As a driver 20 points below the Championship 4 cut line, Hamlin believes simply advancing to Homestead-Miami Speedway at this juncture would be an accomplishment.
“I believe Brad (Keselowski) was talking on one of the shows how he values wins over championships because when you talk ranking in the top 50 drivers, it’s because winning the race never has changed,” Hamlin said. “The person who wins the race doesn’t change based on the championship format that has been changed so many different times.
“We’ve seen, if the format was this, I’d have three championships. We all play by the same rules, we know what they are, and we know what the format is, but it doesn’t always work out for you. It's extremely difficult to win one of these.”
Still, Keselowski has a championship, Hamlin doesn’t. It's easy to value victories when a Cup trophy already sits on the mantle.
During Martin's three decades in NASCAR, he was consumed with racing. His Hall of Fame career includes 40 wins in Cup, 49 in Xfinity and seven in the truck series. Hamlin's life-work balance is far more diverse than Martin's was at this age. But like Martin, Hamlin is already contemplating where he might want to spend his golden years—right here in the Land of the Sun.
“It’s great golfing for sure,” Hamlin said of the metro-Phoenix area. “It’s the weather, it’s everything about it. I was actually saying this morning – there’s a bunch of us (Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) that are sharing a house – I was like, ‘Normally, three or four days away from home and I’m like (sigh), I’m ready to get back home.
“I could just stay here. I’m fine. It’s just I love the area and it is somewhere where I’d like to be more long term once the racing is finished with.”