“It’s our year,” Denny Hamlin said at Bristol, the second time this fall he’s invoked the “our year” comment.
Hamlin has been a title contender almost every year since finishing third-ranked as a rookie in 2006.
Except for 2013, when he missed four races with a back injury, he finished between second- and ninth-ranked six times in his first seven full seasons.
At almost 43 and with 51 victories in 17 full seasons, Denny Hamlin clearly is among NASCAR’s best drivers never to have won a Cup Series title. A recent poll put him solidly in that unofficial category with retired driver Mark Martin and the late Junior Johnson.
But it’s not like the Virginia native hasn’t been close. He’s been top-10 in final points an astonishing 15 times since joining the tour full-time in 2006 with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s been top-5 in points eight times, including the last four seasons. He’s currently ranked third behind Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick entering Sunday afternoon’s 500-mile Playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he has three victories and a dozen other top-10s.
Only a fool would bet against Hamlin eventually getting that championship, perhaps on Nov. 5 at the season finale at Phoenix.
He’s often said he’s not overly-concerned by the absence of a Bill France Trophy in his trophy room. Only he knows if that’s deep-down true, or whether it’s simply his way of wearing combat gear while whistling past the graveyard. If things continue as they have been in recent weeks, though, he might not have to worry much longer about that “… never having won…” label.
Hamlin’s recent victory at Bristol was his third this year, after Kansas in May and Pocono in July. His 51st victory broke the tie with Johnson and two-time champion Ned Jarrett for 13th on NASCAR’s all-time win list. In addition to this year’s three victories, he’s been top-5 in eight other races and top-10 in three more. His only DNF’s were crash-related, at Charlotte in May and Sonoma in June. (Chase Elliott was suspended a race after officials said he intentionally wrecked Hamlin at Charlotte).
Look at his performance over the 10 races leading into the Sept. 3 Playoff opener at Darlington: 3rd, 11th, 14th, 7th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 19th, 2nd and 26th. Even with those four mediocre-to-poor finishes, he and crew chief Chris Gabehart have averaged finishing about 8.6. His first three Playoff finishes were 25th at Darlington, second at Kansas, and first at Bristol. Spoiler alert: he has 16 victories and 99 top-10 finishes at the next seven Playoff venues.
“It’s our year,” he said at Bristol, the second time this fall he’s invoked the “our year” comment. “I feel like we’ve got it all put together. We’ve got the speed for every single type of race track, so there’s nothing to stop us at this point. I don’t think I’ve been any better and I don’t think our team has been any better. At our best, I know we’re good enough (to win the championship). There’s something special about this year and really the last four, five years that's been a lot of fun.”
Hamlin has been among the Championship 4 finalists three times in the past four years. He finished 10th in the 2019 finale, when Kyle Busch won the Cup and the race. In 2020, when Chase Elliott won the race and the Cup, Hamlin was fourth at the checkers. He was third at the end of the 2021 race, when Kyle Larson won the race and the title. He missed last year, when Ross Chastain’s memorable last-lap pass at Martinsville kept him from contending in the finale at Phoenix.
“For us, it really was one lap,” he said after missing by one finish position in the 500-lapper at Martinsville. “It was one move, one lap, that took us out. Certainly, we should be starting up front and contending to win the race. I think if we do that, we’re still fine, but coulda, woulda, shoulda. We didn’t. We didn’t do good enough, and we lost on a move, which is fair game. There’s nothing else I feel like I could have done differently.”
Hamlin has been a title contender almost every year since finishing third-ranked as a rookie in 2006. Except for 2013, when he missed four races with a back injury, he finished between second- and ninth-ranked six times in his first seven full seasons. He’s been a challenger under today’s 16-driver, 10-race, four-round Playoff format, finishing top-10 in points seven of the last nine seasons.
Never doubt his confidence—which some fans perceive as a cockiness they can’t abide. When asked in a pre-Playoff media session if this was his year, he quipped, “Every year is my year.”
He added to that after winning at Bristol. “Nights like this are certainly pleasing after having a couple of weeks (Darlington and Kansas) of like, ‘Darn, we should have got ‘em,’ ” he said. “Keep knocking on the door, keep showing up, keep making the (Championship 4). Eventually your number will be called. Hopefully this is the year for it to be called.”