PHOENIX, Ariz.—Denny Hamlin would like you to think it’s “business as usual” as he approaches his fifth attempt at a NASCAR Cup championship.
In 2014—and for the last three seasons—the driver of the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota has advanced to the final round of the Playoffs, and each time Hamlin has been denied. Fun and frivolity can only take a driver so far.
So why will the 2021 battle for the title be any different?
“Certainly I'm more comfortable,” Hamlin said. “That's not even a question. But, yeah, I mean, I'm comfortable in who I am. Back in 2010, I didn't have the big race wins that I have now. I certainly know that I am a championship-caliber driver. There's no question in my mind. Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn't always been good enough. But certainly, we are as deserving as any.
“In 2010, I would have said, 'Am I really good enough to do this?' I mean, I had a ton of wins in 2010, I was battling Jimmie, and honestly things out of my control took us from locking it up to losing it. I got in my own head, then I messed up. I just wasn't as comfortable then as what I am now.”
Hamlin was an easy target for Jimmie Johnson in 2010. Although he scored eight wins and steamrolled his way to through the first 34 races, the wheels feel off his championship run at Phoenix. Hamlin had led 190 of 312 laps, but crew chief Mike Ford called him to the pits for fuel with 47 laps remaining as a precaution. Hamlin finished 12th and was nearly despondent following the race.
He entered the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 15-point advantage over Johnson, qualified poorly, spun early in the race and watched his advantage evaporate over the course of 400 miles as the No. 48 Hendrick team scored a fifth consecutive title.
Once again, Hamlin finds himself pitted against Hendrick Motorsports-but this time it’s the tag team of Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. Despite running the No. 5 on his car, Larson’s support system consists of the former No. 48 team sans Chad Knaus, who has assumed an advisory role over competition.
While defending champion Elliott and his teammate Larson don’t believe the battle between the final four comes down to Hendrick Motorsports vs. Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin disagrees, despite his run-in with race winner Alex Bowman at Martinsville and subsequent calling out of the legion of Elliott fans.
“It certainly is,” Hamlin said with a grin. “I’m not sure anyone will be working as teammates, I guess, but it certainly is two of the most successful organizations of the season with two representatives. It’s certainly going to be a battle amongst who can bring a fast race car.”
But Hamlin must also deal with the drama that seems to follow him wherever he goes. While some competitors might buckle under the pressure, Hamlin claims to flourish within the maelstrom.
“How do I get up every morning and take my kids to school at 7:30? How do I go to 23XI and work for a couple days in the middle of the week during a Playoff run? I live in chaos,” Hamlin said. My life is chaos. I thrive under chaos…The more shit is stirred up around me, the more I come at it. I don't mind things like that.
“To me it's fuel. Like, I have so much fuel in my tank right now from just motivation. There's a lot of motivation there.”
And just like Martinsville more than a decade ago, Hamlin had hoped to come out of one of his hometown tracks with a win and carry that energy into the finale. The only difference is he’s using last weekend’s disappointment as a catalyst on Sunday.
“I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville, starting in the back, going back to the back again, driving all the way to the front,” Hamlin said. “Winning that race would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right?
“I feel like that momentum was taken away, taken from us. Again, the momentum then in my head swings back around into now I'm ultra-motivated. I love the feeling of, like, just proving people wrong.”
While some might give Hendrick Motorsports the advantage, particularly since the organization has enjoyed a 16-win season, Hamlin is quick to point out that under the current Playoff format, Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship is the only race that matters.
And when it comes to racing with the 750-horsepower ovals, as the Cup teams will this weekend at Phoenix Raceway, nobody does it better than Hamlin. Prior to Sunday’s 24th-place result at Martinsville, the No. 11 Toyota posted an average finish of 4.77 on the shorter ovals. Hamlin has two wins, 15 top fives, 19 top 10s and an average finish of 10.8 on the one-mile oval. In March he finished third behind race winner Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano.
“Certainly more than last year, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said of the No 11 team’s performance with the 750-package. “We were obviously not in the same ballpark, but this year feel very, very confident considering our short-track performance on those size of tracks.”
For the last three years, crew chief Chris Gabehart has done his best to rein Hamlin in. The driver-turned-crew chief astutely came to the realization to simply allow the 40-year-old driver to just do his thing. Together, the pair has amassed 15 wins, including two Daytona 500s and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. And in each of those three seasons, Hamlin has advanced to the Championship 4.
Although Hamlin has never lacked for confidence or bravado, this time feels different.
“To me, I'm so motivated to go out there and show 'em what's up,” Hamlin said. “I think it's fuel for me. It really is fuel for me. People don't get in my head in a negative way. I turn it into positives, into motivation.
“Some people like to go in a hole and hide from it. I do not. I go at it head on. Anyone who's around me knows, a lot of you in the media who have followed my career, when things go haywire or shit hits the fan, I usually come out swinging.
“We will come out swinging again.”