Denny Hamlin’s quest for a NASCAR Cup Series championship has been elusive and, at times over the last decade, frustrating.
Hamlin, 42, is one of the best the sport has seen who doesn’t have a title. After the first round of the 2023 postseason, he is still in contention for the championship, and bolstered his chances of earning a spot as one of the final four drivers with a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway. And in the process, Hamlin maintained that this year is his year.
“Certainly, this year is different,” Hamlin said. “I told you guys before the playoffs started, this year just feels different with the capabilities of our team and the speed we’re showing.”
Hamlin posted the same message on X with photos from victory lane: “It’s our year.”
Perhaps the 17th time in the postseason will be the charm. Hamlin has been a full-time Cup Series competitor since 2006, and just once has he not been in the playoffs. In 2013, Hamlin failed to earn a spot after missing four races after fracturing a vertebra in his back in March in a crash at Auto Club Speedway.
Since the start of the elimination format and winner-take-all season finale, he has made four Championship 4 appearances. On three different occasions, he’s finished either second or third in the championship standings.
It is Hamlin’s belief that if he keeps knocking long enough, the door to a championship will open. But he also doesn’t deny how exhausting the pursuit has been year after year.
“It’s a grind, for sure,” Hamlin said. “(Chris Gabehart) said it, you have to love the game. I still love it. I very well could get knocked out the next round or the next round and then this year is, oh, we failed again. But I still love it. I love the process it takes to come to the racetrack and be fastest in practice and fastest in qualifying and win the race. It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of dedication.
“Usually, at this point of probably driver’s careers, they start not loving it as much because you just got so much other stuff going on. But I’m a competitor and I love competing. At 42, I love this sport as much as I ever have, and what it takes to find an edge. It used to be back in the day, Joe [Gibbs] would just build me a faster car than everyone else. We’d come up with a new trick chassis and just smoke everyone. I didn’t have to put in a whole lot of work; you just kind of rely on the fast car.
“Now, with everything common, the driver’s the No. 1 X-factor in your performance week in, week out. That is a fact. So, it’s on my shoulders to find the edges, find the gray areas of where can I get better. Where are my deficits? I enjoy that process.”
Hamlin averaged a 9.3 finish in the first round. But he had the opportunity to win all three races had he not been thwarted by a loose wheel at Darlington Raceway while running second, and a caution with seven laps to go while leading at Kansas Speedway. He led 382 laps in the first round.
In his postseason career, Hamlin has led over 4,200 laps. Although he didn’t qualify for the championship race last season, his 6.6 average finish in the postseason was the best of his career.
There have been 33 different winners in the Cup Series playoffs since its inaugural season (2004). Hamlin has won 13 times in the postseason, which is the third most of any driver behind Jimmie Johnson (29) and Kevin Harvick (16).
“It’s different for sure,” Hamlin said of the satisfaction of winning in the postseason compared to the regular season. “This is different than if we would have won Darlington because even after Darlington, you still got work to do in this round. I think a couple of years ago, we won the first race in the first two rounds, so we had four races where we were kind of let’s move on and work on the next tracks in the next round.
“Right now, we’re in the grind of, we’re week to week up until this week, where we felt pretty locked in. But it is different. Winning in the playoffs is different because you know that everyone, all the drivers, are as focused as they’ve ever been. The teams are bringing the best. They’re putting as much time as they’ve ever put in all season long and when you can get the best of them, you know you did your job that week.”