Is this the year Hamlin does it? How he feels entering Sunday’s race at Phoenix

AVONDALE, AZ — In the words of 1995 Michael Jordan, “I’m Back.” For the third straight year, Denny Hamlin is back in the Championship 4. He did so last Sunday at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway in a wild ending.

Now, can he turn this into a championship winning campaign this Sunday at the Phoenix Raceway?

That’s always been the drawback against what is surely to be a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer. When is Denny Hamlin going to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship?

He’s heard the comments. Now, it’s time to deliver.

“Certainly, everyone’s go-to is, You haven’t won a championship. There’s nothing else they can say. There’s just nothing else they can say,” Hamlin said on Thursday afternoon.

“To me, I’m so motivated to go out there and show ’em what’s up. 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.”

Swinging is what Hamlin wanted to do last weekend. He led 103 laps at Martinsville and seven more away from a win. That’s when Alex Bowman made a mistake and took Hamlin out for the lead.

That in turn led to Hamlin issuing a payback on Bowman when the race was over and sparked boos from the grandstands. Hamlin, says that the fans reaction at his home track actually fuels him.

“Absolutely. To me it’s fuel,” he said. “Like, I have so much fuel in my tank right now from just motivation. There’s a lot of motivation there.

“I mean, 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. 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.

“You would rather be booed than ignored. The moment you get ignored, it’s bad news, you’re on your way out.”

Hamlin, has won 46 times in the Cup Series. Among those 46 wins? Three Daytona 500’s, three Southern 500’s, a couple Bristol Night Race triumphs, an All-Star race winner, a three-time Clash winner and more. He’s won everything there is to be won with the exception of a championship.

He’s compared his career to Mark Martin’s who’s had similar numbers and has been so close to a title, but never got it. If Hamlin doesn’t end up getting his, then so be it. It wasn’t meant to be.

But, you can’t take away all those other numbers and the fact that he’s one of the best to ever race a stock car at NASCAR’s highest level.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

He’s been to this round before. In a winner take all, he’s just not had the chips fall in his direction to make it happen. Can all that past experience lead to an advantage now on Sunday?

“I don’t know that it really feels that much different other than I just am more confident in our speed this time around than what we had last year,” Hamlin said. “Certainly being ranked 12th last year in speed, it was not good.

“We really made all of our wins up on big tracks like Larson did this year. That’s where we got the bulk of our wins. When we looked at the schedule, All right, we got all these road courses, our 550 tracks, a lot of them have been taken away, where are we going to get back this big win total? We need to win on road courses, short tracks.

“Then we started to shift our focus into what we needed to do to win. I think that this year our focus has always been on this particular weekend. I’m more confident, based off of that and our recent performance on these tracks.”

Hamlin went 26 races to start this season without a win but once he got to the playoffs, he turned up the wick. He won the first playoff race. Then he won another a few weeks later. The problem is, he’s just not won since. Still, he’s had strong cars almost every week and that dates back to the start of the season.

He had eight top fives in the first nine races. He just wasn’t winning. Hendrick Motorsports rose and with tracks that suit HMS and their drivers more than Joe Gibbs Racing and Hamlin, he slipped from top fives to top 10’s. But, once the tracks came back in his favor, the top fives and wins came back.

Hamlin, won the first race of the playoffs. He won the first race of the Round of 12. Can he win the only race in the Championship 4 to go 3-for-4 in first races of rounds this postseason?

He’s won the first race of the season three times including two of the last three. He’s won the final race twice but neither were for a championship and neither under this format. Can he pick up his third season finale win of his career on Sunday in the Arizona desert and take home some championship hardware with him?

Phoenix has been a good track for him. He’s had four top fives in his last five starts there. In fact, he won this very race in 2019 to stamp his name into the Championship 4 that season when it was held at Homestead.

The timing is now. We said that though in 2019. That was supposed to be his best shot. Six wins, 19 top five finishes and 24 top 10’s to go along with 922 laps led led him to the Championship 4 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, his teammate Kyle Busch took home the crown.

Then, last year was supposed to be the year. He backed 2019 up with seven wins, 18 top five’s, 21 top 10’s and 1,083 laps led. Instead, Chase Elliott took the championship. Hamlin, finished fourth in the season finale at Phoenix.

People started labeling him a bust. Can’t win in the big moments. 13 wins, 37 top five finishes, 45 top 10’s and 2,005 laps led in two straight Championship 4 seasons but no championship hardware to show for it. Would he ever get a better chance than what he had in both 2019 and 2020?

He has it now. Can he beat Larson head-to-head?

Hamlin, had two wins, five stage wins including eight of his 12 stages seeing him finish in the top four to go along with a top 10 in the first six playoff races.

Larson, has two wins, three stage wins including seven of his 12 stages being in the top four to go along with five top 10’s in six tries.

The Round of 8 saw the scales tip back to Larson again but like the regular season, the tracks in this span suited Larson. HMS and Larson were at their best on 550 tracks. Hamlin and JGR were at their best on 750’s.

Larson in particular, in 12 races on 550 tracks in 2021, he had five wins, three runner-ups, nine top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas this spring to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.

That’s it.

He’s led 1,737 out of 3,514 possible laps (49%) in these 12 races which also accounts for 70% (1,737 out of 2,474) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 12 stages and has been in the top two in 14 of the 25 stages run on these tracks.

On 750 tracks?

He was seventh in Phoenix (1 lap led) this past spring, fifth (0 laps led) and 14th (Fall) in Martinsville, 20th (0 laps led) and third (8 laps led) in the two stops in Richmond, second in Dover, seventh in Loudon (0 laps led) and did win at Bristol (175 laps led).

Hamlin meanwhile was at his best. He, finished third this spring in Phoenix (33 laps led), third in Martinsville (276 laps led) this spring and led 103 laps last week, second in both races at Richmond (207 laps led, 197 laps led), seventh at Dover, 10th in Loudon (1 lap led) and ninth in Bristol. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville this spring and in the Fall race last week. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.

“Certainly more than last year, for sure,” Hamlin said on his 750 speed this season than last. “We were obviously not in the same ballpark last year. But this year, certainly feel very, very confident considering our short track performance on those types of tracks.”

That’s why this is honestly his time to shine in Phoenix. JGR had showed more speed all year on short tracks over HMS and Hendrick has two of the four cars in the Championship 4.

“I mean, I’ve said for many, many weeks now that it would be a disservice if someone other than the two of us didn’t win,” said Hamlin. “I mean, he’s obviously probably the most deserving over the course of the year that he’s had from start to finish.

“But, yeah, the format, you just never know. Nearly it all ended right there in turn three for silly reasons. That’s why I always preach about wish the sample size was bigger. You don’t have somebody else’s mistakes that can take you out of what you’ve done for the whole season.

“Certainly I think when you look at the four that are in it, I think it’s the best four that you could possibly put in that race. I think all of them would be deserving champions. Obviously Kyle would make the most sense.

“I certainly feel like we’ve been 1 and 1A or 1 and 1B for the whole course of the year. Consistently we’re the guys that are up front every week. We don’t really have a lot of bad weeks between the two of us.

“What I was speaking to is that this format can knock out someone and not even have a chance to make it to the Final 4. That would be a disservice, if myself or Larson wasn’t in the Final 4, it certainly would be a disservice to not have a shot at a championship given the years that we’ve had.

“I think the champion that goes out there on Sunday and wins the race certainly is deserving because that’s the format we run. It’s one race. Our four seasons will be decided in a championship off of what happens for 300 laps.”

If he doesn’t win the title on Sunday, is it more demoralizing as the years go by and he’s been this close but can’t get it done?

“Performance, knowledge. I just feel like 2019 was the other year where I’m, like, we’re fast enough, we’re good enough, we’re ready, this is it, we’re good,” Hamlin said.

“We had a shot, then we made a bad strategic call with a piece of tape. 2020 was just very different because we weren’t as fast. The shorter tracks… My team was trying to convince me for weeks and weeks we’re not as bad on the shorter tracks as you think. I knew better because I drove the cars all year.

“The roles are reversed a little bit this time. I understand. We’ve been in contention to win most of these short tracks. I’m confident from that standpoint.

“The only thing that, again, I’m not confident in is the things that I cannot control. That’s the only thing that worries me is the things that I can’t control. But how can you possibly let those things worry you because you cannot control them?

“I was very content in 2019 and ’20, like leaving the racetrack saying, I did my job to the best of my ability, I drove the car as fast as I possibly could, I wouldn’t change a thing. We didn’t win for various reasons.

“I just hope I do my job again. If I do my job, don’t make any mistakes, I will have a chance.”

I mean NASCAR isn’t an easy sport to win a championship in. The fact that he’s done what he’s done in this three year span is remarkable. But, does he reflect back on what might have been? There’s been 107 races and he’s won 14% (15-for-107) of them to go along with 51% (55-for-107) to fives. Do the final three races of each season hold more weight than the other 104?

Instead of Mark Martin, is he Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts. Among the best to ever play the game. Put up crazy regular season stats. He just couldn’t win the big one in the end.

Next year we get a new car. A new era. Can Hamlin sustain this success? Is he getting closer to a championship or does he feel like he’s staying stagnant? What are they truly missing to win a title?

We don’t know those answers until Sunday but Hamlin hopes a mic drop occurs instead.

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