On Thursday, during NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Media Day, Denny Hamlin appeared calm and confident when it comes his chances at his first-career NASCAR Cup Series championship coming this weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
Hamlin says the catalyst for his confidence in Sunday’s Championship race comes from his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team’s performance this season on shorter tracks like Phoenix that feature the 750-horsepower package.
“Certainly more [confident] than last year,” Hamlin explained. “For sure. 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.”
In 11 starts at oval tracks with the 750-horsepower package this season, Hamlin has scored 1 win, six top-fives and nine top-10 finishes. He’s for sure been solid at the shorter tracks in the sport this season.
But, Hamlin, who has a career-high 24 top-10 finishes this year, has also been good basically everywhere this season.
“Just knowing how I’ve performed for the whole year. That’s the bottom line. Every week I’ve shown up, I’ve had a chance to win. There’s just not been many years, outside of the last couple, where that has been the case. I just don’t see that changing overnight,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin’s career has been filled with many missed Championship opportunities, but none stings more than 2010, when Jimmie Johnson overcame a points deficit to Hamlin in the final race of the season to score the title.
The now 40-year old Hamlin feels the difference in his mental preparation and race craft since that Playoff run in 2010 is immense. He’s so much more ready to become a champion in 2021.
“Yeah, certainly, I’m more comfortable,” Hamlin stated. “That’s not even a question. I’m comfortable with who I am. Back in 2010, I didn’t have the big race wins that I have now. I certainly know that I am a championship-caliber driver. There is no question in my mind. Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn’t always been good enough. But certainly, we’re as deserving as any.”
While Hamlin seemed to truly be in his Zen mode when the conversation surrounded the topic of Phoenix and his Championship battle against Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, he seemed to still be fuming about the finish of last week’s race at Martinsville.
For Hamlin, the frustration, which led to him interrupting Alex Bowman’s victory celebration, stemmed from the loss of the mental message he and his team would have sent to his fellow championship contenders with the win last weekend at Martinsville.
“I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville,” Hamlin admitted. “Starting in the back, going to the back again, driving all the way to the front and winning that race would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend. I feel like that momentum was taken away, it was taken from us.”
Hamlin says that Bowman has not reached out to him personally this week to apologize for the contact that sent the No. 11 car spinning from the lead with five laps to go last week. But the Virginia-native says he isn’t going to go out of his way for an apology.
“No, I’m not reaching out to him,” Hamlin interjected. “Again, it just shows the lack of respect. I think they think, ‘Well, I said sorry on TV, so that’s good enough,’ guys aren’t men anymore.”
The frantic action at the end of last weekend’s race at Martinsville caused a spike in national coverage of the sport, and at the head of it all were Hamlin’s post-race antics toward Bowman.
How can Hamlin keep that situation from becoming a distraction for himself and the No. 11 team this weekend?
“I live in chaos,” Hamlin quipped. “My life is chaos. I thrive under chaos. Honestly, you can probably ask Kyle. The more shit that is stirred up around me, the more I come at it. I don’t mind things like that.”
Instead, Hamlin says what happened at the end of the race last weekend will serve as nothing more than fuel for his competitive fire this weekend.
“Absolutely, to me, it’s fuel,” Hamlin said. “I have so much fuel in my tank right now. From just motivation. It’s — there’s a lot of motivation there.”
If Hamlin’s chance for a championship on Sunday comes down to a neck-and-neck battle in the closing laps, would he wipe a competitor out for the championship?
“I wouldn’t try to, certainly wouldn’t try to wreck them by any means,” Hamlin said. “Move them out of the way, shove them up a lane? Maybe. But, I don’t know. I feel I’m just more of a purist than most.”
It is that feeling that his driving style is cleaner than most that peeves Hamlin the most, especially when you factor in that he’s been spun from the lead numerous times during the 2021 season.
“Again, that’s what fires me up so much about stuff like last week or Indy,” Hamlin said. “It’s like, man, we didn’t even have a chance to, let’s battle. Let’s go toe-to-toe, two drivers battle for a race win. In today’s world, people just accept getting knocked out of the way. People accept it now.
Hamlin continued, “We used to show highlights of the bump and run with Rusty and Jeff Gordon at Bristol and that used to be a highlight. Now, nobody gives a shit, because it’s part of normal every day racing. The craft of actually being good at technique and passing and working someone over, that craft has sort of gone away. And it’s not for good or bad — everyone can race their own particular way…”
Hamlin is tired of the new-wave of thinking in racing that even if you’re slower than the guy in front of you, you have to make something happen, even if it means crashing a guy for the win.
“Why do you have to do something?” Hamlin questioned. “Sometimes, you’re just not good enough, or your car is not good enough to pass. And if you’re not, then you have to finish second that day. That’s okay. My anger and frustration is that if I hit the wall hard enough and I can’t finish, my whole season is done because of someone else’s choices or lack of respect for my position during that time. That’s what drives me absolutely crazy. Some people think their win is more important than yours. That win is not more significant to them than it is to me.”
Hamlin continued, “I don’t care what people think. I’m telling you what I think. It’s my team, it’s my year. All that’s on the line. So, that’s what I’m pissed off about. I made the final four, great. But I nearly didn’t. Because that’s what I don’t understand, whether it be the Chase Briscoe thing — whatever. It’s like, wait a minute, you fucking crashed me? Like, ‘Well, I thought you knew what I was racing for,’ Am I not racing for the same damn thing? I’m racing for a regular season championship, which I got fucking taken out of. I just don’t get it where people think their win is more important than yours.”
At the end of the day, Hamlin is ready to check off the one box that still remains unchecked through a career filled with 46 NASCAR Cup Series wins. It’s time for a NASCAR Cup Series championship.
For the driver who was booed at his home track in Virginia last week, it would be particularly sweet because, “I love the feeling of proving people wrong,” Hamlin explains.