Denny Hamlin had a season in 2018 that many drivers would die to have. However, for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry it was a frustrating campaign that ended with no wins for the first time in his 13-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.
Hamlin, who grew up in Virginia, got rolling immediately when engines were fired on the ’18 season. Through the first five races of the year, Hamlin had already racked up four top-10 finishes – three of which were also top-fives.
It appeared that Hamlin and his crew chief Mike Wheeler were on the verge of breaking through to victory lane. Then, adversity began to set in. Hamlin would record three DNFs by way of crashing in a 12-race stretch to close out the first-half of the year.
As the Summer drug on, Hamlin was still finding ways to grab decent finishes, but qualifying had really become a problem for the No. 11 team.
However, starting with the 20th race of the season at Loudon, New Hampshire Hamlin recorded nine top-10 starting positions in a row, including three poles at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Darlington.
Hamlin would perform good, but not great during this stretch of races until the final regular season race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Hamlin started the day in the 10th position, and he was a threat to win the race all day long. Hamlin led the race two times for a total of 37 laps, but in the waning laps of the event he was up front pacing the field.
Hamlin had the race in hand, until an accident with five laps remaining set up a three-lap dash for the win.
Hamlin was surpassed on the restart by Brad Keselowski and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones. Hamlin would settle for a disappointing third in what amounted to his best performance of the year. After what should have been a win, Hamlin was left seething.
“What I needed was not having meaningless guys in the back wreck,” Hamlin said. “I don’t know what they’re doing crashing with a couple laps to go, multiple laps down. Meaningless.
“Besides that, all those cautions allowed the guys who took tires and save their strategy – allowed them to come back up there and obviously allowed (Keselowski) to kind of rough us up there at the end. Very unfortunate, but it’s what happens sometimes.”
Despite the frustrating finish to the race at Indy, Hamlin was onto the Playoffs.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, frustration boiled over into the first race of the Round of 16 as he crashed and finished 32nd at Las Vegas. Finishes of 16th at Richmond and 12th at the Charlotte Roval were decent, but not nearly enough to secure the driver a place in the Round of 12.
Just like that, Hamlin’s championship hopes were dashed. Hamlin would finish the season out strong though, as he recorded two runner-up finishes down the stretch at Dover and Martinsville. He also logged a fourth place finish at Talladega.
Hamlin would grab his fourth pole position of the year at Homestead, and he would close the year out with a 12th place finish in the Ford EcoBoost 400.
In all, Hamlin put up 10 top-five finishes, 17 top-10s, four poles and he ranked 11th in the year-end Championship standings.
The 38-year-old Hamlin will look to return to his winning form in 2019.
Long-time sponsor FedEx returns for another season on the No. 11 at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin also will gain another past-Cup Series champion as a teammate as Martin Truex Jr. will slide into the No. 19 Toyota Camry which was vacated by Daniel Suarez.
The Joe Gibbs Racing stable will include Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones for 2019.
Wheeler, Hamlin’s crew chief since 2016 was relieved of his duties at season’s end, and Chris Gabehart will attempt to guide Hamlin back into a championship contender this season.
What do I expect from Hamlin?
Well, a win and probably more than one.
The Ford teams that were so dominate for the majority of 2018 should hit a road block at least early on as they swap to the Mustang body this year. The Chevrolet teams are still trying to make up for lost ground with their new Camaro bodies as well. Toyota is the only manufacturer still using their proven body in the Camry, and I expect that to bode well for Hamlin and JGR.
I also don’t expect Hamlin to be bounced from the Playoffs in the Round of 16. Realistically, I say the No. 11 team finishes at least inside the top-eight of the standings in ’19 and that is a mild prediction. They really could surprise and be in the mix for the title at Homestead if everything shakes out for them.