Denny Hamlin thought his team was strong enough to win the championship last season, and he makes no effort to hide his feelings. “We bettered our average finish, better than I’ve ever had in my career,” Hamlin says. “We tied my highest levels of top 5s and top 10s in my career.”
He’s right: Hamlin delivered a two-win season with an 11.6 average finish that included 15 top-5 and 22 top-10 finishes. But those stats hardly tell the full story of Hamlin’s latest championship heartbreak. Now entering his 13th full-time Cup Series season — all with the same team and the same primary sponsor — Hamlin got as far as leading the penultimate playoff race at Phoenix before it all fell apart.
In many ways, Hamlin’s undoing was something of a karmic reckoning. Late in the rough-and-tumble opener of the third playoff round at Martinsville Speedway, Hamlin wrecked Chase Elliott from the lead. The move sent Elliott into win-or-bust mode to advance in the playoffs, and of course left the Georgia driver plenty peeved. Elliott delivered payback at Phoenix by running Hamlin hard late in the race and eventually bumping the No. 11 into the Turn 4 wall. Hamlin later crashed, handing the fourth and final title race playoff spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway to Brad Keselowski.
Hamlin said after the season that he had moved on — maturity and family time during the offseason played contributing roles, he said — but that he’ll always lament the opportunity missed.
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“We gave ourselves a great shot to win the Phoenix race and punch our ticket to Homestead, but it just didn’t work out,” Hamlin says. “Ultimately you want to try and get there and get those championships when you’re running good enough to do it. I felt like this year we were running good enough. But we just came up short. And any year that we don’t get there, it is definitely a disappointment.”
Hamlin doesn’t expect much to change this season in his damaged on-track relationship with Elliott. “I think the tone is set for how we’re gonna race each other for probably some time,” Hamlin says.
Regardless, Hamlin now continues his search for that extra gear that can propel the 2016 Daytona 500 winner to what would be his first Cup championship.
Hamlin says that an offseason focus has been figuring out how to start the season stronger. In 2017, his first-half finishing average of 13.8 was more than four spots worse than his second-half performance.
“For whatever reason, in my career it’s taken me 10-12 races to figure out of what I need to do that particular year,” Hamlin says. “I think I need to set the urgency level a little bit sooner and really try to amp up our performance early in the season versus just waiting until the playoffs.”
Early-season performance will likely see a significant boost for Hamlin regardless of his focus. This season marks the second for Toyota’s 2018 Camry redesign that was implemented on track last year. The Camry ended up dominating the season’s playoffs, with eight wins in 10 races despite just winning two of the season’s first 17 events.
Hamlin could also bolster his playoff standing this season with an improvement in the number of stage wins he scores. He earned just four last season, a far cry from the likes of champion Martin Truex Jr. (19) and teammate Kyle Busch (14).
“If we win more stages and have more playoff points once we get to the playoffs, that will create not such a sense of urgency once we get to those later rounds to get to the final four,” Hamlin says.