If Denny Hamlin can do what he did last year, he’s going to continue to be a strong contender for race wins and championships. “It was our best season,” Hamlin says. “Every number, everything that you could look at says it was our best season, and I believe it. And I mean, what if I wasn’t taken out in the last couple laps of a few races? Then it’s like really a good season.”
Save for race wins (he managed two), Hamlin is right about last season’s run. He tied his career high of total top-5 finishes (19), set a new one for top 10s (25), improved his average running position by 3.4 spots over 2020 and spent an incredible 89.3 percent of all laps racing in the top 15. He even finished every race for the first time in his career.
“In our last two seasons, we’ve ranked in the top 10 of laps completed in all of NASCAR history,” Hamlin says. “So we’re executing really, really well right now. And I think that the way I manage the races has been working.”
Of course, all of that still culminated in Hamlin coming up short — again — in his quest to finally earn a NASCAR Cup Series championship. And once again, that failure came in an unlucky fashion when a late caution flag at the finale allowed Kyle Larson to use a dominant pit stop and strong late-race driving to hold off any charges from Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott.
“I’m not going to hang our head that we didn’t win the championship because we’ve been in the final four three years in a row, and each year there’s been a reason why we haven’t won,” Hamlin says. “We made it to the culmination of the year. Is it a success? To me, (success) is (making) it to the final four.”
Hamlin did all that with the constant background distraction of his latest significant investment: co-ownership with basketball legend Michael Jordan in the first-year 23XI Racing team.
“The last 12 months have changed so much,” Hamlin said in December. “I honestly didn’t know how I would balance between the two. I always kept myself busy, even when I was just a driver, but I lost some hobbies. I don’t play basketball as much, and I played no golf. I’m just a person that works, and I don’t take vacations.”
But as any driver can attest, there are always a few areas the team can clean up. Hamlin specifically noted a mid-summer stretch that saw the No. 11 car forced to pit road in four consecutive races on the final lap.
“I was about to lose my mind,” Hamlin said during the offseason. “It’s like, ‘What the (expletive) is going on here? Let’s just finish the race.’”
It was a stretch that allowed Larson to shrink Hamlin’s substantial lead for the regular-season title. Ultimately, Larson grabbed that lead for good when Hamlin got spun during a late restart by Chase Briscoe at the Indianapolis road course race.
Hamlin said Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports brethren were able to track him down over the regular season thanks to a superior design of the Hendrick Chevrolets in terms of engines and aerodynamics that especially showed at intermediate tracks.
“They smoked us,” Hamlin said. “They had more power, more downforce and less drag. And that combination was just too much to surmount.”
It’s a factor destined to change this season with all-new designs in the Next Gen vehicle. But if last season is any indicator, handling significant changes and distractions might now be Hamlin’s secret advantage.