One little boat ride can cause a whole lot of speculation.
This past weekend, Denny Hamlin was blazing fast at Pocono Raceway like always, but he was also hitting high speeds out on the waters with Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, who also owns a stake in Hendrick Motorsports. Hamlin said he was nervous riding with Mr. H, who used to dabble in drag boat racing, as Hamlin didn’t seem to be a fan of how fast they were going.
“They called and wanted to see if I wanted to go on a boat ride,” Hamlin said. “I said yes. I had nothing else to do. It was fun to say the least. I was nervous. I’ll be honest with you, I was a little nervous. I think 60 [miles per hour] is the fastest I’ve ever gone on water. Blew that out of the water. … They showed me where the ‘Oh, Shit’ bar was when things started getting fast. I held on and hoped that Rick knew what he was doing.”
But why was Hamlin in the boat with Hendrick and Gordon in the first place?
— Ryan Ostrander 8 🏁 (@RyanOstrander_8) June 25, 2020
Hamlin signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing in early 2017. They length of it was not made public, but Hamlin said at the time that he would be “much grayer” when it expired. But one thing I’ve learned in all my years watching sports is to take contracts with a grain of salt. Especially with NASCAR Silly Season, anything is possible.
I personally don’t think that Hamlin will go to the HMS No. 48 to replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson, and I’ve heard nothing supporting the rumor that he would. Hamlin is arguably the best he’s ever been in NASCAR Cup Series competition, so why change the scenery? After all, it’s just one boat ride. But what fun is Silly Season without indulging in some of these rumors? So let’s take a look at why and how Hamlin could end up in the No. 48.
Looking for a New Leader
I can’t picture Hendrick and Gordon inviting Hamlin on the boat for the sole purpose of hanging out with him. I’ve never heard of them hanging out before now. What would Hendrick and Hamlin even socialize about? Their connection to should-be Hall of Famer Ray Hendrick? What a coincidence for them to hang out right when HMS needed to fill its most successful car.
Hendrick currently has three drivers signed for next year under the age of 28. Its lead driver would be Chase Elliott, who is a phenomenal talent and consistent winner but is still in the first act of his Cup career. Rather than bringing up another youngster who would need time to develop, Hendrick could use a veteran driver like Hamlin or Brad Keselowski to come in and give feedback, as well as help with the development of Alex Bowman and William Byron.
Plus, Hendrick needs to give Ally Financial some wins. After signing on as a full-season sponsor, the company has endured a bad past two seasons with Johnson. Hamlin could have an immediate impact like Matt Kenseth had at JGR in 2013. Or maybe FedEx comes with Hamlin and Ally moves over to Bowman, who is currently getting most of his sponsorship from Chevrolet Accessories.
I have little doubt Hendrick and Gordon were trying to butter up Hamlin with the thought of him maybe getting in the No. 48. They’d be crazy not to try to get him, and Hamlin should at least entertain the idea.
That Last Big Score
Racing is a business, and in any business dealing, you’ve got to entertain every option. That’s why it’s important for Hamlin to hear out any potential offers for his services. If nothing else, he could use it as leverage to get more money out of the Coach.
But even though Hamlin already has the dream ride, Hendrick might throw an astronomical figure at him that he simply can’t refuse. When Hendrick got Darrell Waltrip from Junior Johnson, he paid him nearly four times as much money as what Waltrip was getting with Johnson. I’m sure Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne received big pay bumps when they left their respective teams for Hendrick as well.
Sure, Hamlin is already one of the richest drivers in NASCAR. But there is no such thing as enough money; the more you have, the more you want. At 39 years old, Hamlin’s next driving contract could very well be his last. With Hamlin currently at the peak of his career, this could be his chance to score big and then go enjoy his retirement even more than he already will.
Plus, Hendrick offers a lot more business opportunity than it seems Gibbs does. He’s given dealerships to many of his former drivers, partnered with Earnhardt in JR Motorsports, and as noted earlier, rewarded Gordon with a stake in the team. Hamlin already owns a Little Big Burger franchise in Cornelius, N.C., so he’s obviously thinking about how he can invest his money for the future. There aren’t too many better businessmen to align yourself with than Mr. H.
Escaping Rowdy’s Shadow
Hamlin has said on numerous occasions that for majority of his Cup career, he’s been stuck behind one of the best ever: Kyle Busch. Now, he’s also got Martin Truex Jr. to compete with to be top dog at JGR. Both finished higher in the standings than Hamlin last year, with Busch winning the championship and Truex winning more races.
Going to Hendrick would be Hamlin’s chance to escape Busch’s shadow and be the veteran leader at a team while Elliott, Bowman and Byron are still in their formative stages. Still, there could be two major problems in Hamlin leaving for this reason: He’d likely be stuck trying to fill Johnson’s shoes, and Elliott might soon put Hamlin in his shadow. The first issue could be lessened by changing No. 48 to a different number.
Avoiding the Kenseth Treatment
Hamlin was there when Gibbs let Kenseth, a future Hall of Famer, go in favor of up-and-coming talent Erik Jones. He watched as a playoff-caliber driver, who won 15 races in a five-year span, lose his job just because he was 45 years old, had no sponsors of his own and the team’s potential future needed a seat.
As long as Hamlin is as dominant as he is and has FedEx backing, Gibbs wouldn’t dare remove him. But no one outside of the team knows how long after 2020 FedEx is signed through. Say in a couple years they decide to leave the team and Hamlin’s production declines a little, will Gibbs let him go in favor of a younger talent? Or when Hamlin gets into his early 40s, could Gibbs and FedEx together decide they want a younger driver?
TRD’s pipeline of developmental drivers is clogged up. They sign a ton, but only have six Cup seats. Eventually, Christopher Bell will need to move from Leavine Family Racing to JGR.
In business, you’ve got to be looking a couple steps ahead. Hamlin’s seat is secure now, but will it be in a few years? Like Kenseth, he doesn’t want to lose his ride in a time when he’s on the decline and all the competitive seats are filled. So making a move to Hendrick now would be Hamlin looking ahead and getting with a team that needs him, with three guaranteed years of Ally sponsorship and no surplus of development drivers in the pipeline.
Gibbs has to look out for what’s best for his team long-term, and Hamlin has to look out for what’s best for him and his family, even if it breaks one of the longest relationships.
Snap Back to Reality
Hamlin is probably staying with Gibbs and becoming one of the few legendary drivers to spend their whole career with one team and one sponsor. After all, Hamlin is living the dream of working for his childhood hero and driving his favorite number, the winningest car number in NASCAR history. He’s never been better and has perhaps his best shot since 2010 at that elusive championship this year. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, so why take the risk?
He was likely entertaining an offer from Hendrick to get leverage with Gibbs, and that boat ride will probably be the last we hear of him hanging out with Mr. H and Gordon. But if for some reason he does end up in the No. 48, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world.