In a way, the 2019 NASCAR season has been the year of Denny Hamlin. After all, he went winless for the first time in his career last season.
In the past, Hamlin has dreaded the bad moments. You can’t bring up a conversation about the Virginia native and not think about the 2010 mental breakdown he had following the penultimate race of the season at ISM Raceway, ultimately losing the championship to Jimmie Johnson the following week.
However, Hamlin shut his critics up last week at the same racetrack with a dominating performance. The No 11 team enters this year’s Championship 4 Weekend with a ton of momentum, in the midst of a career year.
Following the disappointment of 2018, Hamlin was going to enjoy his success more.
“I think any time that you have past failures, or you let something slip away, or something gets away from you — whether it be a shot at a championship, race wins or not winning at all — you appreciate it when you do win so much more,” Hamlin said on Thursday (Nov. 14) at Championship 4 Media Day. “Coming off a winless year and then winning the Daytona 500, it’s like, “Oof, we don’t have to worry about that the rest of the year because you don’t know how the rest of the year is going to turn out. It is a superspeedway, there is some stuff that goes into that, but then winning a few races later, Texas, and it’s like, ‘We might have something here.’
“We just kept winning as the year went on, kind of spread out. It certainly makes it feel good because you know what the defeat feels like, now you get to feel the excitement.”
Compared to 2018, the No. 11 team is completely different. Team owner, Joe Gibbs, moved crew chief Chris Gabehart up from the Xfinity Series to work with Hamlin. As for the pit crew, the team is using primarily the members from Erik Jones‘ team from one year ago.
Hamlin recalls that prior to the season Gabehart sat the driver down and told him it would be a great team. Entering Homestead with six victories, 19 top five and 23 top-10 finishes (both career-highs), it certainly played out that way.
“Chris met with me and all of the team guys earlier this year in January and said, ‘This is the team. This is who we put together, and I just want you to know this is a really great team from top to bottom,” Hamlin added. I definitely think he’s put together a great team.
“How you go from zero to six [wins] is just fast cars. That and hard work. I’ve definitely put in extra, extra work this year. A lot of it is any time you do struggle, you’ve got to try to find yourself somewhere. We just find ourselves in a good spot now.”
Reflecting back on the season, Hamlin is proud of the effort the No. 11 team has put together. He believes Gabehart is similar to his first crew chief, Mike Forde, in the fact he’s going to get the most out of you.
“He brings out the best in me, that’s absolutely for sure,” Hamlin noted. “I always think about every time I get into the racecar and buckle in and he comes to the window and talks to me – I feel like it’s something he’s rehearsed to pump me up. …He’s never short of motivation and I think that’s really one of his strong suits.”
Hamlin enters Homestead — a track he’s won at twice in his career — with a load of confidence. He believes that winning the championship would cap off a dream season, as it was win or go home at Phoenix last week.
“We’ve already won Homestead,” Hamlin stated. “We won Homestead last weekend. That was our win or go home race and we performed at an incredibly high level. So we’ve got a free weekend to go out there and have fun and keep doing what we’ve been doing, and we’ll have a chance by the end of the night because we have all year long, as long as we do the same thing.”
In order to win his alluded first title, he’ll have to best two of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Throw in Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and those three drivers have seen the most success under the current points format.
But it seems like Hamlin is destined for the title. He’s got his swagger back that he’s had throughout his career.