Denny Hamlin on elusive Cup title: "It's not been a drag by any means"

Denny Hamlin is rapidly becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of NASCAR drivers—he gets no respect.

Denny Hamlin on elusive Cup title: "It's not been a drag by any means"
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Championship contenders pre-race press conference: Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with the Sprint Cup
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Championship contenders press conference: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford, Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
The four drivers for the 2014 Sprint Cup: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford, Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with his crew chief Mike Ford
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Michael Wheeler
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Even after winning 31 races and qualifying for the Playoffs all but one year from 2006 to 2017, Hamlin isn’t listed among the top-five drivers to win the Monster Energy Cup Championship on the VegasInsider.com Sportsbook. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, tops the list. Hamlin is ranked eighth. His odds? 15/1.

Top driver without a title?

No wonder Hamlin was at the center of debate on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio when the topic of ‘Best drivers without a championship’ came up. It’s a label he’s heard many times before. But Hamlin wasn’t even the overwhelming favorite in the category. That distinction went to Kyle Larson.

"It's been motivation,” said Hamlin on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. “I’m always motivated to be better, and I'm just going to keep grinding as long as I can to try to win a championship, and putting in the hard work, I've definitely worked harder last year on things I can do to be better personally on the racetrack, and hopefully that pays off this year and for years to come.

“But it's not been a drag by any means. My career has been great every year. I feel like I'm better, and even though stats may not show it, I feel like I'm a better race car driver. But you just... sometimes circumstances work out for you.”

In 2017, Hamlin won two races and finished sixth in the standings for the second consecutive season. When NASCAR changed its playoff format in 2014 to a Championship 4 face-off in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin advanced but finished third—his best result since finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in 2010.

But Hamlin has yet to regain the magic he shared with crew chief Mike Ford. The pair won eight races that year and led the points for five of the 10 weeks in the Playoffs before Johnson outran him at Homestead and won the title.

Finding the magic again

Mike Wheeler has been at the helm of the No. 11 Fed Ex team—Hamlin’s third crew chief since he split with Ford in 2011. After two years together, they’ve built a solid foundation together.

"Yeah, we've been very consistently good, but we obviously need to have a great year,” Hamlin said. “We need to have a year like 2010 or '12 where we win more than five races and contend for championships. With this format, it's a little bit different, because the entire championship is based off of one race and not your whole body of work.

“I think last year we certainly had the correct champion as far as that's concerned. He performed well throughout the entire season. But it all comes down to one race now, so how can you focus so much effort in the regular season, putting yourself in a good spot, and still know that it doesn't matter if you don't perform well at Homestead. I think it's just taken us to the next level. I mean, I think we're right there. We're level 8 of 10 of where we really need to be.”

JGR's veteran driver

And Hamlin, 36, isn’t getting any younger. He’s currently the veteran of the JGR driver roster which now includes 25-year-old Daniel Suarez and 21-year-old Erik Jones along with Busch, 32. With Christopher Bell, 23, waiting in the wings and only five factory Toyota seats in the Cup Series, what’s a veteran without a championship supposed to do?

"Well, I think there's always a place, as long as Furniture Row doesn't have four cars,” Hamlin said. “There's always going to be a place that you can go. It's ultimately about sponsorship, though, right? That's the biggest ‑‑ been the biggest factor in the hiring and the firing of drivers in the last 10 years is sponsorship.

“And so you have to have it to perform. That's just the way the teams' finances is. They have to run off the bottom line, and they're going to put who they think is best for the job and financially makes sense. I think that we have four cars at JGR, but ultimately Christopher Bell is part of the TRD family, the Toyota family, and there's other Toyota teams out there."

Strong backing

Hamlin's body of work is admirable, and his strong relationship with sponsor Fed-Ex certainly offers him job security.

"Yeah, I mean, I'm in the first year of a new deal this year, so I'm very confident,” Hamlin said. “We've been together for all of my career, which is ‑‑ me and Jimmie (Johnson) are the only two guys that can say that, and that's just ‑‑ yeah, you thank your lucky stars every day you have a company like FedEx behind you.

“I saw they got named one of the top 10 most admired companies, and for good reason. They're very loyal. They do the right thing, and obviously they're in here to win a championship, and that's what I want to do, and they feel like I'm the best fit to do that for them.”

Good things come to those who wait

But there’s still that void that exists on Hamlin’s resume—the Monster Energy Cup Series title.

“Dale Earnhardt was the greatest Daytona driver for how many years before he won it? 20 years, right? He dominated every time,” Hamlin said. “Every year he was in contention. He just never won. Eventually he kept putting himself up front and in contention, and he won.

“That's the way I'm going to keep approaching my career is keep grinding on the door."

shares
comments
Larson: Las Vegas test "more important" with track's playoff race

Previous article

Larson: Las Vegas test "more important" with track's playoff race

Next article

Keselowski: NASCAR's new inspection system will 'level playing field'

Keselowski: NASCAR's new inspection system will 'level playing field'
Load comments
How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022 Prime

How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022

It’s not just Formula 1 that’s set for upheaval in 2022, as the NASCAR Cup series adopts its Next Gen cars that will cast any in-built advantages aside and require teams to adopt a totally new way of operating. Far more than just a change of machinery, the new cars amount to a shift in NASCAR's core philosophy

NASCAR Cup
Oct 12, 2021
Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR Prime

Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR

Bubba Wallace claimed his maiden NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega on Monday to become the first Black victor in the category since Wendell Scott in 1963. Both Wallace and Scott had faced obstacles and racism in their paths to their breakthrough wins, and NASCAR is trying to put it right with its range of diversity programmes

NASCAR Cup
Oct 5, 2021
Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI Prime

Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI

In a career that has had many ups and downs, Kurt Busch has been written off many times before. But facing career uncertainty after the sale of Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team, the 2004 Cup champion has found a new berth at Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan's 23XI organization - which underlines his enduring value

NASCAR Cup
Aug 31, 2021
From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview Prime

From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview

The death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 shocked NASCAR to the core. At the Daytona 24 Hours, two weeks before his fatal accident, ‘The Intimidator’ shared his expectations of challenging for an eighth Cup title with JONATHAN INGRAM, in an article first published in the 15 February 2001 issue of Autosport magazine. Little did we know then what tragedy would unfold…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death Prime

The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death

On February 18, 2001, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – the fearless ‘Intimidator’ – was in his element at Daytona International Speedway. While his own DEI team’s cars ran 1-2 towards the finish line, his famed #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo was playing rear gunner to block any late runs from the chasing pack. As the cars tore through Turns 3 and 4 on that fateful final lap, Earnhardt maintained the strongarm tactics that encapsulated his persona… but his actions in those moments sadly proved to be his last.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR Prime

Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR

The NASCAR Cup Series is changing. Whether it be the gradual morphing out the seasoned drivers of yesterday as the next generation step up, a radical calendar shake-up featuring more road courses than ever before and the prospect of an all-new car on the horizon, stock car racing’s highest level is nearing the end of a huge facelift.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 16, 2021
The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021 Prime

The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021

This weekend's Daytona 500 kickstarts a NASCAR Cup season that promises plenty of intrigue courtesy of new owners and a refreshed calendar. Here's what you need to know ahead of the new season…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 13, 2021
Why Kyle Larson can't blow his big shot at redemption Prime

Why Kyle Larson can't blow his big shot at redemption

From a disgraced NASCAR exile, Kyle Larson has been given a chance of redemption by the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports squad. Effectively replacing seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is no easy billing, but Larson has every intention of repaying the team's faith...

NASCAR Cup
Feb 11, 2021