Every sport has its athletes who manage incredible careers but can't break the championship ceiling. Mark Martin might be the most famous NASCAR driver in that category. Now it's Denny Hamlin who has earned the unlucky recent distinction of seeing repeated oh-so-close chances at championship glory end without lifting the trophy. Hamlin, 40, now has six top-five finishes in the final point standings in his Cup Series career. For Hamlin, four of those finishes have included chances to win the title in the season's last race. All ended just short.
Hamlin has now put together a resume that exceeds Martin's in many respects. Thanks to back-to-back triumphs in 2019 and 2020, Hamlin is a three-time Daytona 500 winner (Martin never won one), and after seven wins last season, he has four more wins than Martin in 340 fewer starts.
You'd think that Hamlin's missed chances to revel in championship glory would bother him. But he's made it perfectly clear that he's able to sustain satisfaction through other metrics of success. That's because his team's goals have actually been met for the past two seasons.
"Our goal is always to make the final four. It's never to actually win the championship," Hamlin says. "That's just a very hard goal, considering it's just one race and there's so many X-factors. You can be perfect. Usually when you're perfect, you determine your own outcome, but in racing you can be perfect and there can be a crash in front of you, and you're done. It wasn't your fault, your team did everything perfect. You can't just put all your eggs in a last-race championship basket of whether your season was a success or not."
Especially within NASCAR's current chaotic playoff system, Hamlin seems more proud of winning races and running up front.
"No one has won more than we have over the last two years," says Hamlin. "Daytona 500 two years in a row, the final four two years in a row. I'm pretty proud of what this team is doing and what we are building toward. Proud of the effort. We will come back and do it again [this] year. I'm looking forward to it. We will win as many races as we possibly can to get ourselves back to Phoenix again with another shot."
It's hard to quibble with Hamlin's predictions about contending and winning regularly again this season. The No. 11 team remains intact with the return of crew chief Chris Gabehart for his third season leading the team. So far, the duo has netted 13 wins while scoring top-five finishes in more than half of Hamlin's starts. Prior to Hamlin's appearance in the Phoenix season finale last fall, Gabehart offered his explanation for the pairing's success.
"The bottom line is it's trust," Gabehart said. "[Hamlin] trusts that he's getting the very best out of his race team each and every week. I trust he's giving us his very best each and every week. That trust builds upon success. We've been fortunate to have that. It does nothing but continue to grow roots, hopefully for years to come."
It doesn't hurt that Hamlin also looks to be hitting the peak of his driving abilities. His average finish in the last two seasons ranks first and second among seasons in his career, and he's finished on the lead lap in 30 races both years. Hamlin's 45 total top-10 finishes in that 72-race span represent a career-best stretch.
It's all adding up to opportunity.
"From my perspective, I'm a numbers guy. I like the law of averages," Hamlin says. "If I just keep putting myself in that final four, eventually things will fall my way."
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 7/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)