Driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing
Denny Hamlin enters the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season in recovery mode in a couple of ways. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver spent most of the offseason recuperating from minor shoulder surgery to address what he termed a hereditary issue involving bone growth into the shoulder socket. The condition was causing Hamlin increasing pain, though he didn’t feel it would cause any issues with preparation for his 15th full-time Cup season.
But Hamlin will also have to find the motivation to improve on a 2019 season that was statistically his best — and yet still ended without a Cup championship trophy. Hamlin won his most races in a season since his eight-win run in 2010, spent the second-highest percentage of time on the lead lap and was one of four drivers eligible for the championship finale. But an aggressive pit stop adjustment with grille tape backfired late in the final race just as his car started to pick up speed. The mistake derailed his third realistic chance at a Cup title.
“It’s a one-race championship — anything can happen. And it happened,” Hamlin says. “I’ve had 2010, the fuel issue [at Phoenix]. In 2014, the caution comes out when I’m leading [Homestead] with  to go. I feel like I’ve done as much as I can do except for the 2010 Homestead race. Things just haven’t worked out for me yet. But they will.”
It won’t be easy for Hamlin to replicate last season. He won six times and set a new career-best mark for top-5 finishes with 19. His average finish was also a career high (9.5) and three positions higher than 2018. And the final half of the 2019 season — a span Hamlin called “elite” — saw the Virginia native notch four race wins, including the must-win situation he faced at the second-to-last race in Phoenix to earn a title shot.
Hamlin accomplished all of that last season with Chris Gabehart, a first-year Cup crew chief who took command of Hamlin’s team following a winless 2018 season for the No. 11 bunch. Gabehart, who previously led teams for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series operation from 2016-18, both spurred Hamlin’s resurgence and made the fateful adjustment call at Homestead that left Hamlin out of the title hunt. The magnitude of the mistake could have led to swift personnel changes or other ramifications. Instead, Hamlin remained steadfast in his trust and confidence in Gabehart for 2020.
“[Gabehart] actually asked me, I think a week or two after [Homestead],” Hamlin says. “He was like, ‘I’m surprised. How come you haven’t asked me about the tape?’ After the race we talked about it a little bit, but he was surprised I didn’t have more questions about it. Whatever he’s doing, it’s for a reason.”
That belief in Gabehart has roots in what he did otherwise for Hamlin last season that helped the driver score all of those wins and nine more top-5 finishes than the year prior.
“Chris opened my eyes to a few different things that I needed to pay attention to,” Hamlin says. “All of that matters; all of that goes into the success. People see the success. They see the good year. They see the good results. They don’t see the work or sometimes the hardship and struggles that created the success.”
Part of Hamlin’s confidence for 2020 is his feeling that it was circumstance, not effort, that left the No. 11 team short last season, again, with a championship on the line.
“They’re all different. I don’t know how it’s going to be,” Hamlin says of 2020. “I just am really excited with the group that we have and what we can do next year and get another shot at it. It’s definitely not a do-or-die situation. It’s gonna be okay. We’re going to be strong, and I guarantee you it’s gonna motivate Chris even more than what he already is.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 9/2 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)