Following his second Daytona 500 win on Sunday (Feb. 17), Denny Hamlin joined a rare group of drivers who have won multiple Daytona 500s. The Virginia native became one of 13 drivers to win the crown jewel of stock car racing more than once.
Does this mean that Hamlin should start being mentioned in same breath as Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty — or maybe more so along with Michael Waltrip and Sterling Marlin? As what has become par for the course following something of importance, the immediate question becomes, “Is Hamlin now considered Hall of Fame Material?”
Maybe Not First Ballot, But….
What makes a driver Hall of Fame material has shifted a bit over the years. During the first few years, it was mandatory that a championship be part of a driver’s resume — absent that a Daytona 500 win would help put one over the top.
As we’ve moved through names like Petty, Earnhardt and Pearson, the bar has shifted a bit — not necessarily diluting the pool, but more representative of the time and era the current crop of Hall of Fame nominees competed in.
If Hamlin’s career ended today, I think he’d most certainly be worthy of inclusion. Maybe not on his first go-round, but it’s hard to argue against his stats: 32 wins, the aforementioned two Daytona 500 triumphs, a top-10 percentage of 50 percent and wins in all three of the top touring series makes a strong case for consideration.
Keep in mind this is during the same era where the same detractors will cite Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles as allegedly being more impressive than Richard Petty’s or Dale Earnhardt’s due to the parity and common template-era of the Gen 5 and Gen 6 cars.
Plus, Hamlin has a pretty good story of how he got to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Discovered by the late JD Gibbs, Hamlin’s family mortgaged the house to help fund his racing endeavors. When Hamlin got his chance to replace the late Jason Leffler in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing machine 14 years ago, he rattled off three top 10s and a pole in his first seven races after joining the team mid-season.
Scoring his first wins in 2006, Hamlin won a race every year until last season — and he’s already back on track with a win in 2019. JGR is the only team Hamlin has driven for, and he’s had one sponsor, FedEx. In a time when funding can be fledgling, that type of loyalty and investment is in the rare air of brands such as STP, Coors, DuPont and GM Goodwrench in NASCAR history.
Hamlin has won races in the Gen 4, 5 and 6 cars, and if he sticks around a couple of more years, a Gen 7 win is almost certainly in his future. That’s quite a diverse resume and another check mark on what will have been one of the most successful careers in the post-Dale Earnhardt Sr. era. –Vito Pugliese
Inflated Stats Have Him Higher On People’s List…
Denny Hamlin’s second career Daytona 500 victory has people talking. Does this second victory in NASCAR’s biggest race mean that the driver of the No. 11 ride is a NASCAR Hall of Famer if his career ended today?
It’s an interesting topic, but I say no.
Coincidentally, Hamlin’s victory puts him tied on the all-time wins list with the only other driver from Joe Gibbs Racing to win the Daytona 500, Dale Jarrett, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. Sometimes, stats are flawed, especially when comparing drivers from different eras in NASCAR. Just because Jarrett is in the Hall of Fame doesn’t necessarily mean that Hamlin belongs in as well.
There are a few things that separate Hamlin and Jarrett. First of all, Jarrett was the second-best driver of his generation. From 1996 to 2002, he was the best driver in NASCAR not named Jeff Gordon. In that same time period, Jarrett won an incredible 26 races, two Daytona 500s and took home the Cup Series championship in 1999. During that seven-year run he finished outside the top five in points just once.
Jarrett wasn’t just very good — his seven-year prime alone is enough to get him into the Hall of Fame.
I don’t ding Jarrett on the early part of his career, even though it wasn’t very impressive. The equipment he was in was a big factor on why he struggled. It wasn’t until Jarrett got to Wood Brothers Racing in 1991 where he really began to spread his wings, but even at that point, the Wood Brothers weren’t where they needed to be to contend for championships.
In 1992, Jarrett was hired as the first driver in Joe Gibbs Racing history, helping to get the team off the ground. He dealt with the growing pains of a new organization, and it showed. JGR was not even close to the same team that Hamlin races for today or began racing full time for in 2006.
That’s something you have to keep in mind. I ask you this question, if Dale Jarrett was in top-notch equipment throughout his career, how many victories would he have? Would he have more wins than 32 in 13 seasons?
Hamlin is still in his prime and averages just 2.4 victories per season. In the seven seasons of Jarrett’s prime, he averaged 3.25 wins per season — almost a full win better than Hamlin.
Hamlin is on more of a modern-day path than drivers of the past. Drivers of the past usually had to take their lumps early in their career before getting the big-time ride that would change everything. Hamlin has been in big-time equipment his entire career. That is something to factor in, especially when comparing him to others in the Hall of Fame.
If you look at the drivers in the Hall of Fame, many of them spent time on teams that weren’t considered a top-notch organization. Dale Earnhardt had a couple of years with Bud Moore, who admitted during that time that his equipment wasn’t what Earnhardt needed to win the championship, and it resulted in a lot of mechanical issues. Rusty Wallace spent the first part of his career on teams that weren’t championship contenders, as did Bill Elliott.
Terry Labonte, who has two championships and nine less wins than Hamlin, spent the middle part of his career in sub-par equipment. He spent three years at Billy Hagan Motorsports and one year at Richard Jackson’s team, both of which were not championship-caliber teams in the early 1990s. Having spent two to three years in subpar equipment is a factor as to why Labonte doesn’t have as many wins as he should. Those guys are not alone — it happened to a lot of drivers.
Something else to keep in mind when looking at Hamlin is the age factor. Hamlin started his Cup career at the age of 25. Jarrett’s first legit season came at the age of 30, when he ran 24 of 29 races in 1989. If you believe that a driver’s prime goes until the age of 45, Jarrett only had 15 years to capitalize on his prime before he tailed off. Hamlin has 20.
Hamlin’s age is major difference to other Hall of Famers with similar stats, not just Jarrett. If you talk to many drivers of that era, they will tell you that car owners shied away from drivers under the age of 30, thinking that that they were too young to be successful at NASCAR’s top level. Jeff Gordon helped change that mentality. Since then, owners have been hiring drivers at younger ages.
So not only are drivers starting their careers earlier, they’re also racing in better equipment earlier in their careers. Sometimes that could mean a driver’s numbers are inflated when comparing them to drivers of the past. Hamlin has benefited from starting in premier equipment at a younger age, there’s no doubt about that.
Something else to keep in mind with Hamlin is, aside from one season, he really hasn’t put a whole year together yet. His best shot at a championship came back in 2010 when he was far and away the most dominate driver, winning eight races.
Since then, Hamlin’s had a few nice seasons, but has yet to put together another year like 2010, even with one of the best teams in NASCAR. It has seemed like since the epic collapse at ISM Raceway in 2010, Hamlin’s numbers have not been the same. He’s finished in the top-five in points just four times in 13 full seasons. Jarrett finished in the top five in points six times in seven years at Robert Yates Racing.
A championship will go a long way in cementing Hamlin’s Hall of Fame case. However, at this point in his career, Hamlin is on the wrong side of the Hall of Fame. –Clayton Caldwell
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.