If Denny Hamlin doesn’t win a championship Sunday at the Phoenix Raceway, will the doubt start to creep in if he ever will? Hamlin, has certainly backed his way into the final round, but he’s back for a second straight season. He’s only had one win in his last 11 starts with just three top fives during this span too. At Phoenix, he does have seven top 10 finishes in his last 11 tries but was only 19th in March.
His competition in Brad Keselowski (2 top fives at Phoenix since 2015), Joey Logano (3 top fives at Phoenix since 2016) and Chase Elliott (2 top fives ever in 9 starts) have struggled in Phoenix. Toyota has dominated on this track.
Are trends on Denny Hamlin’s side? Among the four drivers left that are still eligible to win this year’s championship, only Hamlin and Elliott are the only ones left who haven’t won a Cup title during the course of their careers before.
Out of the last six years under his new Championship 4 format, we’ve had five different champions from five different teams. We know that we will have a repeat champion in terms of an organization as the ones remaining have all won a title since 2014.
On top of that, four of the six years have also seen the champion be a first time champ as well. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are fact is the only drivers since 2012 to win at least a second championship. Everyone else in that time frame earned their first title.
Hamlin, could keep this trend going on Sunday.
Plus, he’s having another career year too. Despite all of that, if Hamlin doesn’t win the championship this year though, then the doubt if he’d ever win a NASCAR Cup Series title could potentially creep in. See, Hamlin is racing as good now as he’s ever been in NASCAR’s premiere series.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had six wins in 2019, tied for second most in a single season for his career. He backed that up with seven more in 2020 so far. He also scored a career high 19 top fives and 23 top 10’s a year ago. His average finish was 9.7, best of his career for a single season too. This year, he has 17 top fives and 19 top 10’s too.
Can he finally get a title?
He needed to win in each of the final two races to win last year’s championship. Being 20 points arrears, it was a lot to make up in one race. He did it at Phoenix with a win, which is the site of this year’s championship finale now. It was a must win then as much as it’s a must win now.
He won in Phoenix in walk off fashion. Part 1 done. Can he get Part 2?
“I can’t think of a more favorable position to be in,” said crew chief Chris Gabehart. “There’s certainly a more pressure-packed situation to be in than we were last year, way more than Richmond. For us making the Championship 4 is the goal. Winning the championship is gravy. Last year, like Chase, when we were in a do-or-die situation, we were able to pull it off at that racetrack, at the track where the championship is decided this year, is something that no other team can say. We have won a clutch race at Phoenix. I think that is a big deal for us. Hopefully we can pull it off again.”
These are all still tall tasks. Does the doubt start to creep in when he’s won each of the last two Daytona 500’s, 13 races, 36 top fives and 43 top 10’s over his last 65 starts and have no championships to show for it?
If he can’t comparisons between he and Mark Martin are coming up.
Martin, raced 31 years. He never won a title. He finished runner-up in the standings five times and had 40 trips to victory lane, but a championship eluded him.
Hamlin, has 44 wins in 16 seasons. He’s been close before too. He just hasn’t won a championship.
“You adjust your expectations,” Hamlin said last year. “No matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure. We, as Mark Martin would say, 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 to that. Because in a one-race, winner-take-all (format) or a three-race round – anything can happen, and it did for us.”
Hamlin, said he’d be okay if he never wins a championship and is compared to Martin when his career is all said and done.
“I think Mark Martin said it best, ‘You can still be respected and still have a really successful career without winning a championship,’” Hamlin said. “I read that he thinks about now that he’s 60 years old, he looks back and thinks would 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 and I appreciate all the love the media has given me over the last two, three weeks. It’s been incredible. Probably not all of it deserved, but I also think we have to give some love to the other competitors as well. Everyone is looking at is the 11 gonna win?
“They all have an equal chance we have to give them the due respect as well. I’ll do the best I can and see what the outlook can be.”
Gabehart, notes that a championship still means a lot to his driver.
“I think it certainly means a lot,” he continued. “I think that’s a better question for him. Certainly that’s the pinnacle, the crown jewel of the sport as a driver, is to be a champion one day, the sport’s top level. It would mean a lot to him, myself, the 11 team, all of Joe Gibbs Racing for sure.
“We just got to win another race. We’ve won 13 of them together. I think he’s won 44 of them. We got to get him to 45 and me to 14. That’s the way this format works. It’s got four rounds, three races per round, then one race to decide it all.
“It’s like Harvick said, it’s a very different world in how we crown our champions today, full of a lot of exciting racing, no doubt about it. You got to tune into the very last lap of the NASCAR season to know how it’s all going to play out.
“The reality is we have to go out and run another race. It’s really that simple. It just is that the championship is at the end of this one.”