Denny Hamlin didn’t walk away from last season with a title or even a berth in the Championship 4. By those measurements, the season wasn’t a story of unbridled success. But Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team are hardly in need of a full reboot as the 2017 season opens. In many ways, he believes that things will only get better.
“It was overall a great year for our FedEx team, and although we came up short of the title, we won three races and ran up front throughout the year,” Hamlin says. “There is nothing to be discouraged about. This drives us to come back better next season and make another run at it.”
Much of that confidence comes from how Hamlin’s 2016 campaign started and then continued. Hamlin put together a season that was both full of checking off new items on his driving bucket list and mostly lacking in pressure. By the end of it all, Hamlin had scored 22 top-10 finishes and an average finish of 11.8 — both career bests.
Last season brought Hamlin, who begins his 12th full-time Cup season, his first career Daytona 500 victory. It came in thrilling fashion as Hamlin edged quasi-Toyota teammate Martin Truex Jr. at the checkered flag by just a few inches.
For Hamlin, the win quickly changed the trajectory of a season that began with the question mark of how Hamlin’s new hand-picked crew chief Mike Wheeler would lead the team. The No. 11 team suddenly had 25 races and nearly seven months to come together for a playoff push, thanks to NASCAR’s rules offering drivers who win a regular-season race a spot in the postseason if they manage to finish 30th or better in the point standings.
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The team put the free time to good use. Hamlin earned his first career road course win in August at Watkins Glen — after losing on the final lap on the road course at Sonoma Raceway in June — and finished the regular season with a win at his hometown Richmond International Raceway.
Hamlin’s good fortune and quality performances continued in the 10-race postseason. He made it to the third round before just missing out on advancement to the championship round.
“We performed good in the Chase. We really did,” Hamlin says. “It was one of the few years we weren’t taken out by something crazy happening. We just didn’t have the performance. A sixth-place average finish (in the Chase) usually gets you to the Final Four, but we had three guys win, and that’s something that’s never happened in that round before.”
Hamlin, now 36, appears to be reaching his prime as a driver. With the improving average finish, a jaw-dropping average start last season of 6.3 and his highest win total in a single season since 2012, he has much to look forward to this season.
What stands in Hamlin’s way? He'll have to overcome his talented teammates to win a title. He’ll also need to finish off extension talks, a potential distraction as he and Matt Kenseth both have expiring contracts. Erik Jones and Matt Tifft will wait patiently for Hamlin to have a bad year.
Don’t expect one. Hamlin, whose success or failure is more tied to his emotional state than most athletes, enters 2017 beaming with confidence. “I had three wins, first road course win, the best average start and the best average finish of my whole career,” Hamlin says. “We just didn’t win a championship. I think that’s pretty good for the first time for (Wheeler) as a crew chief.”