Denny Hamlin is back in the dance for another year, where he will yet again attempt to collect his first-career NASCAR Cup Series championship. While many drivers go their entire career without sniffing a title, Hamlin, 39, enters his latest best chance at a title as one of the overwhelming favorites.
Three years ago, Hamlin recorded his first-ever goose-egg in the win column during a disappointing 2018 season. It appeared he had reached a fork in the road with his professional career. He would either take the right turn and improve back to a championship caliber-level, or he would take the wrong turn and be looking at a dwindling career.
Safe to say, the Virginia-native took the right turn as he has amassed an incredible 12 victories over his last 62 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series. What led to the incredible turn around?
“Just a lot of stuff has changed on and off the race track,” Hamlin said in a Thursday availability during NASCAR Playoffs Media Day. “I think I’ve changed a little bit as a driver. I’ve just adapted quite a bit as well. It’s tough to say what has automatically just flipped the switch and made the results what they’ve been over the last two years or less than two years. Certainly, there’s a process we’ve put in to preparing for each week that is working for us, it’s working for me. Me and Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us. Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening.”
While Hamlin can’t quite put his finger on one individual reason for his huge boom of success the last couple of years, a lot of it has to be credited to Gabehart, who replaced Mike Wheeler as crew chief following the win-less 2018 season.
A season ago, Hamlin won six races, and was within striking distance of the championship at Homestead, until a pit road gaffe where a large piece of tape applied to the front of his No. 11 car caused him to overheat, and in the process evaporated his title aspirations.
A heartbreaking moment like that could have seriously left the driver/crew chief combination at odds with one another, or at the very least it could have led to a hangover in 2020. However, Hamlin says that he and Gabehart have not discussed the tape issue from Homestead at all. Instead, the focused on how to be even better in 2020.
“We didn’t even talk about Homestead,” Hamlin explained. “I think it was probably right around Daytona time this year when we were just talking and spit-balling about what we were doing this year coming up and our strategy for the first part of the season, going through all the analytics from the past season. He’s like, ‘are you not going to ask me why I put that big piece of tape on your car?’ I was like, no, I assumed you had a reason for it so I figured it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is go out there and drive as fast as I can every single lap and tell you the information that you need to make the car go faster. I did what I felt like all I could do to win the championship and it didn’t work out.”
It’s impressive to see this side of Hamlin, who wore his heart on his sleeve a lot in the early years of his career. Had something like this happened to him before, see his epic collapse at Phoenix and Homestead back in 2010, when he lost out to Jimmie Johnson for the title, Hamlin would have sulked. He would have wallowed in despair and he would have possibly wasted an entire season trying to recapture his groove.
Fast forward to 2020, and a more understanding and cerebral Hamlin is back in the mix for a championship just months after a devastating pit call ruined his title hopes.
“I know [Gabehart]’s an aggressive guy that goes for it,” Hamlin explained. “I knew that there was some sort of reason why he did what he did and I wasn’t going to fault him for it. It didn’t take me any time to get over it. We had a great year. We came off a win-less season before to a six-win season that year. We won the must-win situation at Phoenix that we needed to get to the final four. It didn’t take me any time to get over it and especially, it showed that we won the Daytona 500 again this year. We continued our momentum regardless of what happened in the final race.”
So, knowing what happened at Homestead, would Hamlin hope for his crew chief to maybe play things a bit more safe this time around?
“I want him to stay that way,” Hamlin said. “He’s very aggressive with strategy and things like that. I do not want him to play it safe unless he sees an opportunity where if we play it safe here, we’re guaranteeing some sort of result that we need. That would be the only time that I would like to see him scale back, but it would be tough for that to actually happen.”
Hamlin and Gabehart have been in sync since day one of their partnership in 2019, and they have proven to be a potent winning duo. Now, a more mature and ultra-focused Hamlin behind the wheel seems poised to be going to Phoenix Raceway with a chance at winning his elusive first-career NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.