How does one define greatness anymore? It’s a touchy subject. Some say nothing else matters other than championship rings. Others say you shouldn’t discount regular season success. So where’s the line that separates the good from the great and the elite from the legendary status?
That’s relevant because it’s a topic that surrounds Denny Hamlin right now. I don’t think there’s any reason of doubt to say that Hamlin is a for sure First Ballot Hall of Famer in this sport. 48 Cup Series wins in an era that’s growing more and more increasingly difficult to win, he’s still winning in bunches.
He’s won almost all the crown jewels now. He’s a 3-time Daytona 500 champion, as well as reaching victory lane 3 times in the Southern 500. He’s also won the Bristol Night race twice, the All-Star race once and now this season the Coca-Cola 600. The only thing missing is an Indianapolis win and a championship.
Is this his year?
Hamlin makes his 16th career playoff appearance. Just he, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have done so. Nobody else has more. His 12 playoff wins rank 3rd best. Just Jimmie Johnson’s 29 trips to victory lane during the postseason and Harvick’s 16 rank higher.
Now though, can he march back to the Championship 4 at Phoenix. He has 4 of them already, which is 4th best. The only ones ahead of him each have 5 (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick).
Another trip put him with them so long as they don’t make the final round too this November. However, among those 4 previous trips, he’s not taken home the championship in each. Is this his year to do so?
He’s made 3 straight Championship 4’s and all 3 ended in defeat. This year he enters with the least amount of playoff points heading into the playoffs than the other 3 previously however he only had 15 playoff points last year compared to 13 this time around.
From the tape in Homestead in 2019, to Chase Elliott just being that much better in 2020 to a late caution in 2021 that took he and teammate Truex Jr. out of the top 2 spots, Hamlin has seen it all.
What has he learned from the previous 3 that he can carry with him to a triumph in November? Is there anything he looks back on as to what he could do differently?
Still, would another march to the final round and leaving Phoenix with some new hardware leave another bad taste in his mouth or should Championship 4’s now be the new gold standard?
I mean think about it. A Championship 4 appearance is about your entire season. The grind that it takes to be in the playoffs and the mental toughness that it takes to last 9 rounds of the playoffs.
A Final 4 is a championship in and of it’s own. A championship is a different standard because it’s only about 1 race and a winner take all scenario among the 4 drivers fighting for the championship that season. The previous 35 races no longer matter. You can’t take the points with you.
So does he hang his hat on the fact that he’s gotten to this many over the years?
Still, the march to this year’s playoffs varied differently than last. In 2021, he had 8 top 5 finishes in the first 9 races run. He was consistent and had fast race cars. He just wasn’t winning.
This year, he couldn’t get a top 5 for a long while. His win in the 7th race of the season at Richmond was his first top 10 result all year and his only one through Mothers Day weekend.
That’s where his season turned. He had 5 top 5’s after including another win in the Coke 600. He thought he had won at Pocono before that win was taken away. His No. 11 Toyota started to peak and now he comes into the playoffs hoping for a near repeat of the last three with only one exception – a championship.
Hamlin enters this year’s postseason with 2 top 4 finishes in the last 4 weeks.