A different Denny Hamlin enters this year’s NASCAR Cup Series postseason.
For a start, Hamlin is calmer and more confident. Not only because of the solid regular season he and the No. 11 FedEx team put together with four wins, 373 laps led, and 30 playoff points, but the personal work Hamlin has been putting in.
“It’s definitely fact that I’m more calm, more confident because I’ve learned to let go of the things I can’t control,” said Hamlin. “A lot of that has come through self-improvement. I’ve done a lot of reading, which I never would consider myself a reader — I didn’t read a book, I guarantee you, from whenever I had to in high school until I turned 38 this year. Never read anything, and I then just started reading over the last three or four months, and I started learning and just trying to be a better person in general. And I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve learned to really let go of the things I can’t control.’
“It’s really allowed me to think about the process more and that’s where I think it’s really helped with my on-track performances. Thinking through the processes more and not focusing on the things and worrying about the things that I specifically can’t control.”
This is not the first time Hamlin has mentioned his state of mind. When he addressed the media after winning at Bristol last month he spoke about being in a good place both professionally and personally, which was corroborated by both crew chief Chris Gabehart and team owner Joe Gibbs.
Hamlin also doesn’t go into the playoffs thinking about or waiting for something to go wrong, which he’s experienced before. While the veteran has never won a Cup Series title, it hasn’t been for lack of having the opportunity within his grasp.
“There was a time a few years ago we had the craziest s*** happen to us,” Hamlin said. “[Like] the roof hatch fall off at Talladega; that took us out. Just the silliest of stuff has happened to me, but I’m OK with it. The karma turns around eventually, and hopefully, before this is all done and I hang up the helmet, I’ll have that good fortune that makes up for that.”
In 2010, Hamlin led the point standings going into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway only to crash on Lap 25 coming from the 37th starting spot and eventually losing the title to Jimmie Johnson. In 2014 he was in the Championship 4 but again, the race didn’t play out in his favor.
“No, they don’t hang over me,” said Hamlin. “2010, maybe a little bit more because I didn’t do my best job. In 2014 I thought I did the best I could. I led the race inside 10 laps to go, and a lapped car or someone way down crashes and (Kevin) Harvick pits, takes tires and wins the championship. That race I felt like I did everything I could, and we weren’t super-fast in 2014. We hadn’t won nearly as many races. Harvick was the most dominant and fastest car by far that whole season, and we showed up at Homestead and were legit. We ran with him and outran him for a lot of that race and circumstances didn’t work in our favor, and we lost.
“I took way more solace in 2014 then I did in 2010, where there was no reason to kind of lose. I just got too excited in the moment. I remember when it all started on qualifying day watching a couple guys run up high and be fast. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t practice up there, I need to run up there,’ and got in the wall and started in the rear and got caught up in a three-wide wreck early. That was on the driver, not anyone else. Since then, I feel like I’ve gotten better in realizing my surroundings and realizing when I need to push it, when I need to trust in myself to do the right thing.”
On track, there’s also a difference as the Gabehart-led team isn’t getting too far ahead of themselves. The playoffs are one week at a time, the focus on winning the race at hand and first up being Las Vegas. There is no thinking about Richmond or the Charlotte elimination race.
Hamlin says the mentality is to go into every track like they haven’t had any past success there and working to improve themselves. That will carry with them through the playoffs and certainly if Hamlin makes the championship race for the third time.
Given all this, “no doubt” this year is the best chance Hamlin has had heading into the playoffs, he feels.
“It remains to be seen whether it’s our best chance when we get to Homestead or not,” said Hamlin. “If we get to Homestead, it will be as an equal chance as we had in 2010, as an equal chance as we had in 2014. But as we enter the playoffs, certainly it’s our best chance because we already have a 30-point head start on the guys near the cutoff line.
“Certainly, with on-track performance we are not searching for speed — we are not searching for anything right now. As long as we execute, we contend for wins every week and that’s something that only a handful or less can say.”