Denny Hamlin wasn’t breaking any news when he admitted during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas that statistically the 2018 season wasn’t his best. Among the lowlights: going winless for the first time in his full-time career, having four DNFs, and being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
But Hamlin saw some light at the end of the tunnel as the season wound down.
“I was kind of excited to see how we ran, really, the last five to six races of the season,” Hamlin said. “That kind of [gives] me a little bit of motivation and ready to get going for 2019, obviously with some changes with our team and really the entire changes when it comes to the whole rules package and things like that. I’m ready to go. This is one of the few offseasons I wish was a little bit shorter versus longer.”
Hamlin used the word “excited” four times in a 5-minute time span.
Usually by this time of the year, Hamlin is done talking about racing. But over the course of those last five to six races he referenced — which came after he had been eliminated from postseason contention — his performance was “substantially” better. Hamlin earned the pole in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his fourth of the season.
A runner-up effort at Dover gave way to a fourth-place finish at Talladega. After leading 31 laps at Martinsville, Hamlin wound up second after the contact between Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap. Challenging for the lead in Phoenix, Hamlin crashed with Kurt Busch and finished 13th.
“So, I’m ready to get going,” Hamlin said of the ’19 season.
The biggest change to the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team will be a new crew chief. After three seasons together, crew chief Mike Wheeler is moving to Leavine Family Racing and Matt DiBenedetto. LFR is a new alliance team for JGR. Hamlin’s next crew chief has not yet been announced.
On the track, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will be going to a new rules package. Using aero ducts and tapered spacers along with a bigger spoiler and splitter, officials are looking to deliver better racing. In doing so, the expectation is the field will be closer.
“I think the racing will be better at the larger racetracks,” said Hamlin. “I can think of the two-mile racetracks in particular that it’s going to be substantially better. Some of the short tracks, it could be a challenge simply because of the aero. You’re going to be punching a bigger hole in the air. It’s tough to judge it until you see it, but I got to drive it a little bit and seemed pretty fun.”
So with all there is to look ahead at, Hamlin said he will have no problem getting over what happened this season.
“I’m really excited for 2019,” said Hamlin. “As crappy as ’18 was, we’re still leading with two laps to go at the Daytona 500, leading with two laps to go in the Brickyard 400. You win those two races and your season certainly looks a whole lot different. But cautions fall sometimes when you don’t expect them, and for us, definitely bit us.
“Certainly, I would love to clean the slate and start all over again with new objectives. With this new package, the field will be mixed up a little bit more, so I’m excited to kind of see how it all plays out. And really, for me, anytime you have a season that is subpar you’re always ready to go back and redeem yourself.”