Denny Hamlin hoping fourth time is a charm in bid for first NASCAR Cup championship



Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

November 15, 2019 11:00 AM

Denny Hamlin hoping fourth time is a charm in bid for first NASCAR Cup championship

Hamlin has had his share of near-misses in Championship 4 format.

Al Pearce



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Denny Hamlin, who has six wins in 2019, is still seeking that elusive first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

At 38 and with more racing behind him than ahead, Denny Hamlin is once again on the cusp of a championship in NASCAR’s top-line Cup Series. Once again, as in this is the fourth time the Toyota driver for Joe Gibbs Racing has been close to that big silver chunk of hardware they’ll hand out after Sunday afternoon’s Ford EcoBoost Championship 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The only things looming between Hamlin and his first title in 14 full seasons are JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing. Toyota drivers Busch and Truex Jr. have already won a Cup title, Busch in 2015 and Truex Jr. in 2017. Likewise, Harvick, in a Ford nowadays, won the 2014 championship in a Chevy.
In his Rookie of the Year season of 2006, Hamlin went to Homestead tied for third with Harvick in points, finished the 400 third behind Greg Biffle and Truex Jr. and was third in final points. Four years later, he took a 12-point lead into Homestead but struggled all day (12th) and finished 14th as Jimmie Johnson went from -12 to +39 and the championship. (That day enraged him so much he still can’t grasp everything that went wrong). Then in 2014, he went to Homestead third in points only to finish seventh in the race, ending the season third in points.

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With that background of near-misses, here is his take on the Championship 4 format:
“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” he said. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. If you have a mechanical failure on lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four. Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead; every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend. That’s really different.
“I think when you had championships based off the entire season, even when we had the playoff system of having it for 10 straight weeks, having that playoff, it was a bigger sample size. You felt like, ‘Wow, that guy, he’s been the best over the long haul.’ I don’t want to discredit anyone that’s won under this format. For the most part the best still came out and won. But certainly, it’s a little more by chance any time you deal with a one‑race winner-take-all.”

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With 37 career victories—that’s tied for 22nd with the late Bobby Isaac on the all-time winners’ list—Hamlin is just the third driver in the top-25 without a title. The others are Hall of Fame legends Junior Johnson (50 victories) and Mark Martin (40). As it stands going into the weekend, that’s a three-man club Hamlin would be happy to quit.
And even though all big trophies are special, winning this year’s might be even more satisfying than the others Hamlin reached for. “I think this format has been played out (six) years,” he said. “Look at how many times these three (Busch, Harvick and Truex Jr.) have made it to the final four under different rules packages, different cars, different everything. They have been the standard year in and year out. 
“You see one or two guys poke in that (Championship 4 rotation) here and there. But I think it would be most gratifying if I did win (this year) because this is the best field. This is by far the best in any category that you can try to put together. Certainly, it would mean more because of that reason.

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Hamlin was spot-on. Harvick has been in the title-deciding race five times, missing only in 2016. Likewise, Busch has been there five times, missing in the first year of 2014. And Truex Jr. has been among the contenders four times, missing in 2014 and 2016. (Hamlin is now a two-time challenger. Joey Logano has raced for the Cup three times, and Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski once each.
The fact that Hamlin is here is something of a minor surprise. He and his No. 11 FedEx team were 0-for-36 and 11th in points after a dismal 2018 meltdown. Team owner Joe Gibbs and Toyota Racing Development leader David Wilson agreed that something had to be done. “That was an unacceptable season,” Wilson said. “To do nothing would have been unconscionable. We all agreed with that.”
The solution? Gibbs and Hamlin and others in the JGR hierarchy made wholesale personnel changes. “There were a lot of changes from top to bottom,” Hamlin said. “Our (2018) pit crew went over to Erik Jones this year, and we had a whole new group of guys. We were probably 25th for the first handful or even 10 races.  But they steadily just got a little bit better as the season went on.

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“There’s a lot of elements. You change crew chiefs (Chris Gabehart replaced Mike Wheeler). You change crews. You change mechanics. Chris met with me and all the team guys earlier in the year and said, ‘This is the team. This is who we put together. I just want you to know, this is a really great team from top to bottom.
“Eric Phillips being our car chief… he’s won races. I definitely think he’s put together a great team. How you go from zero victories to six is just fast cars; that and hard work. I definitely have put in extra, extra work this year. A lot of it is any time you struggle you’ve got to try to find yourself somewhere. We just found ourselves in a good spot now.”      
Intending no disrespect to the other 36 drivers on Sunday’s grid, the season-ending 267-lapper at HMS is all about the Hamlin-Harvick-Truex Jr.-Busch scrap. Under NASCAR’s unique “winner-take-all” format, the highest finisher from that foursome is the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, regardless of where he finishes. It matters not if he’s 1st or 15th or 26th or 30th… just as long as the other three challengers are behind him. (It’s been a marketing bonus that the champion has won th3e race in the first five years of the system).

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Don’t bother reminding Hamlin about being odd man out on Sunday. Harvick, Truex Jr. and Busch didn’t play any mind games on him when they gathered for a media scrum on Thursday afternoon at a fancy hotel in the heart of Miami Beach. 
“No, they haven’t,” Hamlin said when asked if the other three had reminded him he still hasn’t won a Cup after all these years. “I think they’re all aware that I haven’t. I think it’s been well‑documented at this point, so no (they haven’t mentioned it).”
As for trying to psych out the competition with trash talk: “No, I don’t think so, either,” he added. “This is the ‘old guys rules’ group up here.”

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