If Denny Hamlin wants to be a champion, he must keep his eyes on the prize

If Denny Hamlin wants to be a champion, he must keep his eyes on the prize
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

It doesn’t seem that long ago when it appeared Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin would go toe-to-toe all the way to the NASCAR Cup Series championship round at Phoenix International Raceway in November. 

Harvick would win a race. Hamlin would answer. When NASCAR returned to action in May after a 10-week hiatus, Harvick and Hamlin split the two races at Darlington, The same thing happened at the doubleheader at Pocono Raceway in June and again at Dover Downs in August. In the first Drydene 311 at the Monster Mile, Hamlin tied Harvick with a series-high six wins for the season. The next day, Harvick extended his win total to seven.

Yet over the last four races, the winds Have shifted. Harvick has scored two wins to top the Cup tour with nine. Hamlin has earned one podium finish—a third at Daytona, the cutoff race entering the Playoffs. His average finish in the Round of 16 was 15.3 compared to Harvick’s average of 3.0. Hamlin experienced a similar slump in July when he finished 28th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 12th at Kentucky Speedway and 20th Texas Motor Speedway. He recovered the following week with a win at Kansas Speedway and went on to post six finishes of sixth or better, including two wins and five podiums. 

But during the most critical time in the schedule, Hamlin appears to be imploding—and it’s not even November yet. 
After winning the Daytona 500 and coming back strong following the Covid-19 break, Hamlin made a serious case as a championship contender with his solid performances. Add Chris Gabehart to the equation—the most measured and promising young crew chief to come out of the engineering ranks in years—and there was no way the wheels were going to roll off of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team’s title quest. 

Then the rumors began in early August. The first domino to drop was the sale of Leavine Family Racing. By mid-August, the conversation turned to Hamlin brokering a deal with Bubba Wallace with Toyota, first with Richard Petty Motorsports and then with Gaunt Brothers Racing, potentially financed by Michael Jordan. 

Prior to the Daytona weekend, Hamlin addressed the subject on Aug. 28.

“I don’t have anything to announce or to speak about when it comes to it,” Hamlin said. “I think that I’m always looking towards what I’m going to do after my driving career is over. I’ve got some great partners that support me and my decisions in what I will do for years to come. So, I don’t know. I wish I had something to announce, but I really don’t. There’s a lot of things up in the air that are still getting worked on. 

“I’ve got to win this weekend and next weekend, and that’s where I’ve got to focus, but certainly I believe that, no matter what, my career will be with Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx as long as I want to drive.”

Hamlin didn’t win that weekend, but he posted the only top-five finish in his last five starts. 

When asked whether Hamlin would be allowed to own a team under the current rules, NASCAR president Steve Phelps replied, “There are opportunities for a driver in a four-car team to participate in ownership as long as we determine—and it's proven—that it essentially is not a fifth team for that particular team. Whether it's cost-related or whatever it is, that it would be a front for the fifth team. That's why the rule was written the way it was written. So, there is an opportunity for a driver in a four-car team to have an ownership stake.

"The short answer is yes. But they would need to abide by our guidelines that we would be satisfied that it's not just a shell for a fifth team.”

With Toyota Racing Development losing its partnerships, first with Furniture Row Racing following the 2018 season and with LFR at the of this year, a void exists to fill the technical alliance/test team role.

On Sept. 5, Germain Racing confirmed it was on the sale block, and Hamlin’s former crew chief Mike Wheeler was spotted walking through the Mooresville shop on the driver’s behalf, according to sources. That same day, Wallace announced he would not return to RPM. The GBR argument gained steam after Daniel Suarez announced his free agency on Tuesday.

On Saturday prior to the Bristol Night Race, Hamlin was on the hot seat once again during media availability. Despite a poor Zoom connection during the interview, Hamlin was asked whether he or his management group (Fuel SMG owned by Rod Moskowitz, who also represents Wallace) had bid on the Germain charter. 

“I can’t comment on any of that stuff,” Hamlin said. “If you all have anything for tonight’s race, I’m free to answer, but I don’t have anything to announce. We’re not really talking about anything beyond that tonight.”

A second media member made another run at Hamlin in the guise of why team ownership interests the driver?

“I’ve had the notion for a while,” Hamlin said. “I still don’t know how long my driving career will go. Obviously, it will go well beyond the near future. I’m concentrating on what I’m doing on the race track right now, but certainly wouldn’t mind positioning myself on that side. There are several different sides of management or what not that I would like to be a part of when it comes to NASCAR and the sport itself. It has to be the right opportunity and if it’s not the right opportunity, the right time then I won’t do it. 

“Everything just has to line up perfectly for me to even remotely consider it. I do believe that the model will hopefully get better. Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook towards the future is what’s interesting to me.”

The Zoom connection with Hamlin deteriorated quickly, but with the No. 11 Toyota starting from the rear of the field for failing tech again, it was clear the team would be challenged at Thunder Valley. The deficit didn’t seem to concern Hamlin. Neither did the recent lack of execution. As Hamlin has said in the past, he and Gabehart have developed a successful balance over the last two seasons.

“I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us,” Hamlin said. “Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening.”

On Saturday night, Hamlin, who was the defending winner of the race, finished 21st, three laps off the pace. In his defense, he had worked his way up to fifth before running into the back of his teammate Martin Truex Jr., whose car careened directly in front of the No. 11 Camry and gave Hamlin no time to react. 

Still, Harvick won. He extended his points lead to 19 over Hamlin entering the Round of 12. Perhaps more glaring is Harvick’s winning attitude. Everything is going right for the driver and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. He’s focused. He’s pumped. And unlike Hamlin, there are no distractions in his life. Team ownership? Been there, done that. There’s only one concern for Harvick right now, and that’s winning the Cup championship. 

Certainly, Hamlin has enough Playoff points to skate into Phoenix over the next six races. But if he doesn’t want to be a bridesmaid once again, his priorities need to shift to the task at hand. 

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