Denny Hamlin set out to do something nobody else has done before: win three consecutive Daytona 500s. Despite leading six times for a race-high 98 laps, the three-peat was denied with a fifth-place finish.
But the story of Hamlin’s 2021 season goes far beyond the Great American Race. He will get to experience the highs and lows of team ownership for the first time. He and his peers in the NASCAR Cup Series will get to tackle some new tracks as the season progresses. But Hamlin’s most familiar quest is the one he has been on for the last 16 years: winning a Cup Series championship. Despite all his success at Daytona and a decorated NASCAR career to match, Hamlin has never won the sport’s biggest prize.
It is a little surprising that Hamlin remains without a title, especially given the fortunes of his top competitors. Hamlin is part of a group of drivers who broke into the Cup Series ranks during the second half of the 2000s. His first full-time season was 2006, within a few years either way of drivers like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski entering the Cup Series along with him. Of those, Hamlin is second only to Busch in total wins with 44. He is also third in wins among active drivers, behind Busch and the seemingly-ageless Kevin Harvick.
However, Hamlin is the only driver from the above list who is still a full-time Cup Series racer without a championship. Keselowski was the first from this group to break Jimmie Johnson’s stranglehold on the big trophy. Busch has earned two championships of his own, with Truex and Logano claiming one each. Edwards came close – agonizingly close – on several occasions before walking away from NASCAR at the end of the 2016 season. Bowyer, after several postseason runs of his own, hung up his helmet at the end of last year to take a broadcasting job with FOX.
Through all the changes around him, Hamlin has continued to pilot the No. 11 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. Thanks to FedEx, he has enjoyed more stable sponsorship than most drivers do. He has also benefitted from Toyota’s investment in JGR, as well as the veteran leadership that racers like Matt Kenseth and Edwards brought to the team. Hamlin and Busch have been teammates for years, and while they have been at odds with each other from time to time, they have found a way to co-exist within the JGR framework, something that would have seemed almost impossible 10 years ago. Once a driver who was emotionally volatile, the veteran’s confidence and maturity has also been on display in recent years. But as the years have gone by, Hamlin has watched someone else hoist the championship trophy every time.
Not that Hamlin has never been within reach of the title. He had a great shot to unseat Johnson in 2010, but the pressure of the moment seemed to unravel the upstart No. 11 team in the final races of the season. In 2014, the first year of the elimination-style playoffs, Hamlin weathered an up-and-down season to reach the championship race. However, poor pit strategy took away his shot at the title.
Hamlin did not get back to the final round of the postseason until 2019. He might have won the title that year, too, had his crew not affixed a comedically large piece of tape to the grille of the No. 11, causing an overheating issue. And last year, after Harvick’s surprising elimination in the round of eight, Hamlin looked like the favorite to win it all. Instead, he got outrun by all the other title contenders in a race that he won the previous year.
Knowing that Hamlin has had good opportunities to win the title before, but come up short every time, is it realistic to expect that this season could be different? While winning the Cup Series championship is always a difficult task, Hamlin does hold some key advantages as the year begins. One is his record of success with crew chief Chris Gabehart. In 68 races together, Hamlin and Gabehart have won 13 times, a win rate of nearly 20%.
Meanwhile, none of Keselowski, Truex, Logano or Busch are still paired with the crew chiefs that helped win them their championships. The powerful duo of Harvick and Rodney Childers is still at large, but their inability to close out the 2020 season with the championship indicates they are not infallible. Hamlin and Gabehart have proven their effectiveness over the last two years and facing another season of limited practice time, their familiarity with each other will be a major advantage over top rivals.
But the biggest factor in Hamlin’s favor is timing. After Hamlin was responsible for seven of JGR’s nine wins in 2020, he suddenly looks like Toyota’s biggest championship threat. Think about how different his position is from five or six years ago. While Busch and Kenseth were winning races left and right, Edwards was JGR’s new, exciting hire and Truex was coming into his own with Furniture Row Racing, Hamlin felt like an afterthought. Everybody knew that he was a capable driver, but it seemed like most of his Toyota teammates were on more of an upward trajectory than he was.
Fast forward to 2021, and Hamlin is suddenly the star of the Toyota show. Not only was he one of 2020’s biggest winners, but he has established his own team, 23XI Racing, with rising star Bubba Wallace and no less than Michael Jordan as a co-owner. Having someone of Jordan’s status involved in NASCAR is obviously a boon for the sport. But the creation of 23XI Racing also fulfills a very real need for Toyota to expand its footprint in the Cup Series. Because Hamlin is investing his time and money into Toyota, that gives Toyota a little extra incentive to invest in him.
If Hamlin is going to be a Cup Series champion, now is the time to do it. He has the team, the motivation, and the opportunity to win it all. As the drivers who began racing in the mid-2000s become the veterans, while the rookies of the 2010s continue to rise, there has never been a better moment for Hamlin, the last driver of his cohort without a title, to finally earn that elusive championship crown.