Denny Hamlin has been putting together one of the best seasons of his career but faces the possibility of being eliminated from title contention this weekend.
Hamlin, who has won five races and has 22 top-10 finishes, is the first driver below a transfer spot. Last weekend the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a 40-point swing when he spun off Turn 4 in Texas and damaged his Toyota. He can either advance into the championship race by winning at ISM Raceway or erasing a 20-point deficit.
“No matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure,” said Hamlin. “As Mark Martin would say, we just didn’t score enough points. We had a great year, we won races, we led more laps than we have in a long time and more top fives (18) than anybody in the series. It’s been a really good year, and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decided whether it’s a good season or not.
“I think you have to adjust to that. One race, winner take all, or a three-race round, anything can happen, and it did for us.”
Just once before has Hamlin been in the Championship 4 – 2014. Hamlin has never won a NASCAR Cup Series championship and said he would be OK to be considered this generation’s Mark Martin, which is the best active driver without a title.
“I think Mark Martin said it best, ‘You can still be respected and still have a really successful career without winning a championship,’” said Hamlin. “I read that he thinks about now that he’s 60 years old, he looks back and thinks will a championship make any difference in my life right now? He says, ‘No, it wouldn’t.’ I’m at that point. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove.
“I know what I’m capable of, I think my competitors know what I’m capable of and I appreciate all the love the media has given me over the last two, three weeks. It’s been incredible. Probably not all of it deserved, but I also think we have to give some love to the other competitors too.”
Hamlin was second in opening practice at ISM Raceway and ninth in final practice. He has one win at the track from 2012 and finished fifth in the spring.
Should Hamlin and the No. 11 team make the final four but not win the championship, it’s still a big deal to him.
“I believe Brad [Keselowski] was talking on one of the shows how he values wins over championships because when you talk ranking in the top 50 drivers, it’s because winning the race never has changed,” said Hamlin. “The person who wins the race doesn’t change based on the championship format that has been changed so many different times. We’ve seen, ‘If the format was this, I’d have three championships.’ We all play by the same rules, we know what they are, and we know what the format is, but it doesn’t always work out for you.
“(It is) extremely difficult to win one of these.”