Another year, another near miss for Denny Hamlin. Will he ever win a NASCAR Cup Series title?
Luken Glover: Denny Hamlin absolutely has the talent to get the job done. So, can he do it? Definitely a yes. Will he do it? I’m leaning towards no. We may be seeing the equivalent of Mark Martin, who Hamlin has certainly had echoed in his ear over the past couple of seasons. Everything is there to do it. He’s got a great car, fast pit crew, sharp-witted crew chief and the talent. We’ve seen the 40-year-old mature greatly over the years, yet it still seems there is a slight mental roadblock. He appeared to have more fire than ever after his run-in with Alex Bowman at Martinsville Speedway, but one could argue that it once again distracted him from the goal. If he can avoid mental mistakes and hot feuds in the playoffs, there is a clear path. I just don’t know if that will ever happen.
Stephen Stumpf: Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see Hamlin getting it done. Hamlin’s made the Championship 4 every season since 2019, the year he was first paired with crew chief Chris Gabehart. And all three times they’ve been the worst car in the final race. In the last three Championship 4 races, Hamlin has led a combined total of two laps. It’s one thing to show up at the race with speed and come home empty handed, but for whatever reason, Hamlin and his team have struggled to keep up with the rest of the competition when it’s all on the line. Combined with the beginning of the Next Gen era, it feels like Hamlin’s time as a championship contender may be heading to a close sooner rather than later. It’s unknown how long Hamlin will stay competitive, so his window hasn’t closed just yet. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong. But his performances in the final race up to this point haven’t given me the confidence to guarantee him winning a championship in the future.
Adam Cheek: Though it’s increasingly appearing that Hamlin is running out of time, the window is still open and I’ll say that he will. Hamlin’s career resurgence (15 wins across the past three seasons, at least 18 top fives and 20+ top 10s in each year of that span) has been nothing short of impressive, though his performance in the final race of each season has left something to be desired. The talent is there, the potential is there and the momentum is there, but that No. 11 team just needs to put together one perfect playoff run to secure the title. He’s come close or been in the quartet of contenders four times now, and at some point the luck has to turn his way. Now, of course, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” but factor in the law of averages cliche too and Hamlin isn’t necessarily out of luck yet. If Hamlin keeps up the performances he’s had the past several years, and little besides his win drought through the 2021 regular season (which was partially negated by his constant spot atop the points standings) seems to indicate he’ll fall off but so much. That No. 11 will get its due eventually, be it next year or a few years down the road.
Cup, Xfinity and Trucks once held their final events at different tracks each year. Should this be considered in future schedules or is a tripleheader the way to go?
Stumpf: I think the tripleheader is a nice way to close out the season, and it’s worked for a long time. Each race leads into the next one, and the tripleheader gives fans the opportunity to travel to the track and see the championship battle for all three series instead of having to pick and choose one event.
Cheek: I’d absolutely love the variety, but triple headers make for the best build-up to the main event on Sunday. There’s the beauty of synchronicity in the way the schedules are lined up now: though each series visits various tracks on various weekends, sometimes aligning and sometimes not, the season opens with a Friday-Saturday-Sunday tripleheader at Daytona International Speedway and closes with a Friday-Saturday-Sunday tripleheader at Phoenix Raceway (and it was the same with Homestead-Miami Speedway). This year was the best example we’ve seen over the past few seasons, with the excitement building with every passing event: Ben Rhodes moves Zane Smith for the Camping World Truck Series title on Friday; Daniel Hemric trades paint with Austin Cindric all the way across the line to claim the win and championship; and then an honestly really entertaining Cup race featured quite a bit of competition between the top four drivers and some non-playoff contenders. Given how unpredictable and exciting the year has been as a whole, this past championship weekend tripleheader was the perfect encapsulation of the 2021 season.
Glover: Keep it a triple header all the way. This past weekend had championship feels all about it. One great moment led into the next race. Rhodes made a late-race pass on Smith to seal the Truck title. Hemric finally had the weight lifted and earned his first Xfinity Series win and title. Lastly, Kyle Larson cemented a historic year with the help of a great pit crew. Phoenix Raceway saw it all: great battles, pure emotion, teamwork, and the atmosphere of a championship weekend. All three can carry into the next and it should stay that way.
Looking back at 2021, who or what was your biggest positive surprise within NASCAR?
Cheek: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but 2021 reminded me a lot of 2011, one of the more exciting seasons so far this century, in a ton of positive ways. Chief among them is the variety of winners with some first-time visitors to victory lane mixed in, especially kicking off the season with Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell‘s maiden wins. Then that turned into seven different winners in the first seven races, three first-time winners overall and 16 different cars that ended up in victory lane over the course of the season, including the first-ever Cup Series triumphs for 23XI Racing and Kaulig Racing. Sure, Larson dominated with double-digit wins, but mixed in were guys like Bubba Wallace, AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola, along with breakout seasons for Bowman and Ryan Blaney as well as some great on-track performances from newcomer Trackhouse Racing Team. I’ll parallel it with the trend in major league baseball since 2000: 15 teams – half the league – have won a World Series since 2000, with no club repeating as champion the following year. Parity is a fantastic thing for any sport and 2021 was one of the best showings in recent memory.
Glover: This is really tough, as 2021 provided some storybook moments. Larson’s comeback tour was special from so many different lenses. I don’t think anyone could have expected the dominance he displayed in 2021, yet he once again proved that he is a generational talent. Hemric finally breaking through to win the race and championship was heartfelt throughout the entire garage. And as for a storyline, the entrance of Trackhouse is in full swing. One of the biggest surprises was Trackhouse purchasing the assets of Chip Ganassi Racing. The passing of the torch is in good hands, and the vision that Trackhouse has is very likely a blueprint to success.
Stumpf: To me, Larson was the biggest surprise of the year. I think most people would have predicted Larson to succeed at Hendrick Motorsports, but I don’t think anyone would have predicted that Larson would have the first double-digit win season since 2007, the most laps led in a season since Jeff Gordon in 1995, and the Cup Series championship all in one go. He wasn’t the only surprise though, as I enjoyed the middle of the summer where Almirola finally got the monkey off his back and pulled off the shocking upset at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to win his first race outside of Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway. The week before New Hampshire also featured Kurt Busch turning back the clock at Atlanta Motor Speedway and having his most dominant victory since Richmond Raceway in 2015. For other drivers, I thought that Ross Chastain did a great job in his first (and only) season in Chip Ganassi’s No. 42 car, and I was excited to continue to watch Tyler Reddick‘s progression from his rookie season. Finally, I thought the new teams in Trackhouse and 23XI were nice additions to the series. Suarez had a surprise top five run at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, and with its purchase of CGR, Trackhouse has shown that it is here to stay for the long run. For 23XI, the season wasn’t without growing pains, but they were able to be out front and win at Talladega with Wallace when the rain hit. I think they will only continue to build on the finish that they had to the season for next year.
What would you say was the biggest letdown or disappointment?
Glover: As a whole, Stewart-Haas Racing was a letdown. With Kevin Harvick coming off a 2020 season with nine wins only to win zilch, it was the centerpiece of their falloff. Chase Briscoe was entering his rookie season after winning a dominant nine Xfinity races in 2020. He showed great flashes of potential, but struggled to adapt in the first half. Cole Custer nearly seemed non-existent, experiencing a large setback from 2020. And despite his New Hampshire win, 2021 was the worst Almirola has performed for the team. I don’t expect that to last long, however. Another letdown was the 550hp package. Intermediate tracks deserve a spot in NASCAR, but the issues are clearly being ignored. Hopefully, the Next Gen will present a different style, but the accordion, harder to pass than a kidney stone style of intermediate racing has grown weary. NASCAR needs to address the problem and avoid ignoring it any longer.
Stumpf: The easy answer to this question is Stewart-Haas Racing, so I’m going to choose someone that isn’t from SHR: Joey Logano. Logano was shot out of a cannon at the beginning of the year, as he was one lap away from winning the Daytona 500, battled Bell for the win at the Daytona road course, dominated and led the most laps at the spring Phoenix race before finishing second, had a shocking win at the inaugural Bristol dirt race, and battled Hamlin for the win at Richmond before Bowman stole the show on the final restart. Logano was red hot at the beginning of the year, and to me, that made his falloff all the more disappointing. After his Talladega flip in April, Logano led just 129 laps to close out the season. And aside from the August race at Daytona, he wasn’t a serious contender to win any race and often struggled to run in the top five. In fact, Logano had just six top fives in the final 27 races of the season. 2022 will be a year of change for the Penske camp, as the departure of Brad Keselowski to Roush Fenway Racing will leave Logano as the team’s elder. And Team Penske and the No. 22 team will hope that they can recapture the speed Logano had at the beginning of this year when the cars hit the track again in February.
Cheek: I’ll deviate from the obvious answer of Stewart-Haas Racing and angle towards Team Penske, but more so the team as a whole: Blaney had his stellar three-win season, but after wins at Bristol Dirt and Talladega, respectively, Logano and Keselowski were consistently just kind of there the rest of the year. They both made it to the Round of 8, yet never seemed to constantly contend and neither scored more than 10 top-fives, nor at least 20 top-10 finishes, all season. Blaney was similar statistics-wise outside of the victory column, and let’s not forget Austin Cindric: the 2020 Xfinity Series champion drove part-time as preparation for his jump to Cup in 2022, and though the results don’t show it (just one top 10) he ran up front considerably often in his seven races. Though their decade-plus staple in Keselowski is gone, Penske has a pretty bright light with Cindric waiting in the wings.
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