Despite a horrendous start to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, Denny Hamlin could actually be shaping up to be the strongest title contender.
I know that sounds like one of the craziest things I could’ve possibly said. But put down the stones and let me explain.
Yes, through the first 12 races of the season, Hamlin only has one top-10 finish, his win at Richmond Raceway. He’s currently on pace to score just three top 10s this season, which would be his lowest total since scoring three in his seven starts way back in 2005.
Hamlin’s already had four DNFs after having just two over the previous three seasons combined. He’s already finished off the lead lap seven times, something he hasn’t done in a season since he did so nine times in his winless 2018. He’s currently 22nd in points, his lowest since he was 23rd in points after missing four races due to injury in 2013.
But that being said, Hamlin has two critical things going for him that immediately make him a threat for his first Cup title. The first is that Richmond win, which all but guarantees he will have a berth in the playoffs (let’s be honest, there won’t be 17 winners). The second is speed.
So far this year, Hamlin has a green-flag passing differential of 147 positions. That means he has made a pass 147 more times than he has been passed under green flag conditions. That puts him as tied with Kurt Busch for fourth best in the series, trailing only Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Hamlin has the ninth-most laps led and the 11th-most fastest laps despite failing to complete a whopping 470 laps so far.
Speed is not the issue in the No. 11 camp. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas haven’t been as fast as the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets on a weekly basis, but I’m sure JGR will catch up as the season progresses.
Still, Hamlin’s finishes do not dictate how strong he has been this season. Martinsville Speedway is really the only race this year where the No. 11 team just missed it and were bad the entire race, finishing three laps down in 28th. Hamlin wasn’t blazingly fast at Phoenix Raceway either but had a quiet 13th-place day.
But he’s collected stage points in six of the 12 races (coincidentally not at Richmond), including two stage wins, proving that Hamlin has the speed but just can’t close the deal.
The reason why? Hamlin seems to be snake-bitten this year. He’s had just about every problem imaginable happen to his car this year. Some have been self-inflicted, but others are just pure bad luck and mechanical gremlins. But having something go wrong has been a seemingly weekly occurrence for Hamlin ever since The Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, an extensive list that was well-documented by NBC Sports last week.
It really seemed he was going to win at Dover Motor Speedway before the tire came off while he was winning the race off of pit road. And Hamlin could be without his crew chief Chris Gabehart for four weeks at some point should JGR lose its appeal to the penalty for a tire coming off.
Add to that list last week’s race at Darlington Raceway, during which Hamlin scored points in both stages and seemed a legitimate contender for the win. But more pit road problems put him at the tail of the field, where he got caught up in the big crash that brought out the final yellow flag.
So really, the only time the No. 11 team didn’t shoot themselves in the foot was at Richmond, and they won the race.
But the way I see it, Hamlin is getting all of his bad luck out of the way early. The past three seasons, Hamlin has had phenomenal regular seasons only for something to go wrong in the playoffs and keep him from winning a championship. In fact, that’s kind of been the case his entire Cup career.
Maybe this time, it’ll be the exact opposite. Hamlin will have bad luck all throughout the regular season, do just enough to make the playoffs and then finally convert his speed and talent into wins and a championship.
It’s not 2003 anymore. The finishes on a weekly basis aren’t as crucial as they were then. What is important is getting all the kinks worked out so that a team can essentially have four perfect races in the playoffs and win the title.
Kevin Harvick finally got his first Cup title in 2014, but you wouldn’t have guessed he was going to from the first third of the season. Harvick won two of that season’s first eight races but still sat outside the top 20 in points thanks to a engine problem, a crash and pit road issues. But he went on a tear to end that season, winning three of the final six races.
At the one-third mark of the 2015 season, eventual champion Kyle Busch had only competed in one race due to broken bones in both legs and was 41st in points. He won four times that summer and was super consistent throughout the playoffs (getting in thanks to a waiver) before winning the championship race.
Jimmie Johnson was 11th in points 25 races into his 2016 championship year, but similar to Harvick, he won three of the final seven races. Joey Logano was super consistent in 2018, but he never showed himself as a huge championship contender until he won two of the final four races. Chase Elliott had a similar 2020 championship year, not really taking off until winning three of the final five races.
Kyle Larson had only won one race and was sixth in points at the one-third mark last year. He ended the year with double-digit wins en route to his title.
Like it or not, it’s the way the system is now. It doesn’t really pay to be consistent throughout the regular season anymore except in rare instances like Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 or Busch in 2019. It seems every year there is someone who wins a ton during the regular season and seems like a championship favorite only to fail miserably in the last four to seven races when it really counts.
So it would be idiotic to count Hamlin out of the championship battle this soon in the season. It wouldn’t be shocking at all if the team has few more bad races, struggles through a Gabehart suspension and then pops off a bunch of wins as soon as he comes back.
It might sound crazy, but it might just be the formula that finally nets Hamlin that elusive title.
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