Denny Hamlin, a fixture in the NASCAR Cup Series over the last two decades, is still chasing after his first championship at NASCAR’s top level, which has eluded him throughout his entire career.
That long-winded pursuit of the ultimate prize in NASCAR will have to wait another season, though, after the Chesterfield, Virginia-native was bounced from the NASCAR Playoffs following Sunday’s race at Martinsville.
Entering the season-finale at Phoenix Raceway, Hamlin has put together a three-win season, triumphing at Kansas, Pocono, and Bristol. That, coupled with a series-leading 14 top-five finishes, made the Joe Gibbs Racing driver one of the favorites for the title.
But, it was a power steering failure in the closing laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway that turned a potential top-five run for Hamlin, into a 30th-place finish, which ended up costing the 42-year-old driver upwards of 25 points.
“The mechanical failure last week with the power steering sealed our fate,” Hamlin told NBC Sports after the race. “Proud of this whole FedEx Toyota team for showing up today when we really needed to, having probably a mid-50-point day. They did great. They did absolutely great.”
To guarantee that the No. 11 moved through to the Championship 4, the five-time winner at Martinsville Speedway needed to repeat his success at the half-mile paperclip. Leading a race-high 156 laps, that goal looked to be realistic, and easily obtainable.
Hamlin dominated the early portion of the event, but as the laps clicked off, was further challenged by Ryan Blaney, the race’s eventual winner, whose Team Penske crew made the right adjustments to get the No. 12 hooked up.
The race’s final restart, with 168 laps remaining, would see Hamlin line up in the back half of the top-10, after taking on four tires, while others either took two tires, gas only, or stayed on track.
With track position at a premium, Hamlin could only pick through enough traffic to finish in third, behind Blaney and Aric Almirola, leaving him eight points behind William Byron, who rebounded from a horrible afternoon to finish 13th.
When the dust settled, it ended up being the heap of points lost at Homestead, from a simple parts failure, that would end up relegating Hamlin outside of the Championship 4, back to fifth place in points heading to Phoenix.
“[Blaney] was the best car today, so congrats to them. All the Final 4 that made it. It’s going to be great. Hate we’re not in it with our FedEx Camry,” Hamlin added. “Definitely I was happy with the performance we had today. In the ‘Round of 8’, you can’t have one bad week. Unfortunately, mechanical failure takes us from running really well to in the 30s. That’s it.”
With his chances at winning the NASCAR Cup Series title dashed, the goal shifts next weekend at Phoenix for Hamlin, as he enters the season-finale with his sights set on picking up his 52nd victory at NASCAR’s top level.
“Man, I just want to get ready and go try to win next week,” Hamlin said. “I still love it so much because every week I feel like I got a shot to win. That’s what fuels my passion, even at my age, to keep doing this, is I’m with the team that I got, that gives me such fast cars every week and gives me a chance to continue to pile on those stats before the end of my career.”
Over the last half-decade, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing have showed up as a threat to win just about every NASCAR Cup Series event, with the driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry picking up 20 victories over the last five seasons, the most of any driver.
“It’s not over by any means. We got a long way to go. Really happy about the year in general. I thought substantially faster this year at all racetracks than what we were last year,” Hamlin added. “It’s racing, right? This is the Playoffs. You got a three-race season. [Blaney] showed up this round, right? He deserved to be in that Final 4. The performance they had today was phenomenal. I’m just happy for those guys. One more week.”
Barring a difficult outing in the season-finale at Phoenix Raceway, Hamlin should be able to record a top-five finish in points, as he sits 25 markers ahead of his driver, Tyler Reddick. Should he manage that, it would be his fifth consecutive top-five points finish in the NASCAR Cup Series.