I’ve been down a Denny Hamlin rabbit hole since late Sunday night.
Dating back to the start of the new year, I’ve written 18 pieces about Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team – not including practice, qualifying, or race recaps. Sunday, after Hamlin won for the sixth time this season, officially earning his spot in the Championship 4, I was curious to see how well Hamlin stories have aged since first being filed to the site.
The trip down memory lane didn’t leave me with any grand revelation, but solidified what had been developing over the last eight months. Hamlin was, dare I say, destined for a spot at Homestead and another legitimate shot at his first championship.
This piece, which pays good attention to crew chief Chris Gabehart and what he’s brought to the team.
The lede of the last piece on the above list still holds true. Hamlin has said all the right things; his attitude has been on point. His focus and determination might be the most centered it has ever been in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. This is the best version of Hamlin that has competed for the championship, and the way in which he attacked the challenge and pressure of going into ISM Raceway out of a transfer spot should have been further proof for any doubter.
Granted, for every good thing Hamlin has done this year there have been critics who countered that “it’s still Denny Hamlin” when it comes to the big picture (i.e. he hasn’t won a title so who cares what he’s doing right in the regular season). But here Hamlin is with a spot in the title race and with as good a shot as anyone, and probably the best shot he’s ever had, to be standing tall at the end of the night. And even if Hamlin comes up short, it seems highly unlikely it will be because he reverted into his former self and folded when it matters most. As he’s done all year, Hamlin is going to go down swinging.
“We’re going to have fun,” said Hamlin. “It’s my birthday weekend. Homestead is always my birthday weekend. I wanted to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one.
“In 2010, I shut everyone out. Like I didn’t do any of the birthday stuff, I didn’t hang out with anyone. I really didn’t respond to calls or texts or anything like that. But I’m not going to be that way this time around, because I just am not going to change who I am. If I want to go out for a late dinner, I’m going to go out for a late dinner. It’s what I do every single week, and we won six races and had success. It’s not going to make me do better if I go into the hotel room and lock myself in at eight o’clock. It didn’t in 2010.
“I’m going to enjoy the moment. All you can ask for at the start of the year is ask for an opportunity for a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete. It’s goal accomplished. Now we just got to go out there and do it.”
Elaborating on what will be different this time around, Hamlin continued. “Really just overthought it (in ‘10),” he said. “I’m not going to overthink it this time. I’m just going to do my thing and have fun and enjoy the moment. We are definitely on house money right now, so let’s enjoy it.”
Now for the other three contenders:
Kyle Busch is making his fifth consecutive Championship 4 appearance this weekend and seeking title number two. Busch won the regular-season championship after spending much of the year trading the top spot with Joey Logano. That consistency hasn’t been seen in the playoffs for Busch and the No. 18 group.
At Martinsville a few weeks ago, Busch didn’t try to talk his way around the fact that clean races have been few and far between in the playoffs. His 12.1 average finish through nine postseason races is the worst of the four title contenders, with the Round of 8 Busch’s best three-race stretch. Since winning the title in ’15, Busch hasn’t finished worse than sixth at Homestead, but track position or being a step behind in speed to his fellow competitors has left him empty handed. It has been a fight for Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens all year, and this weekend will be no different.
“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is,” said Busch. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. It means a lot to have that opportunity. It’s what your whole season comes down to. I’m looking forward to Homestead and we’ll see if we can bring home another championship.”
Martin Truex Jr. has been damn near perfect in the playoffs. Three wins in nine races, and if Talladega were taken out of the equation, his worst finish would be a seventh. It was a slow but steady start to the year, and now the No. 19 team looks invincible. A 6.2 average finish this postseason is second only to Kevin Harvick.
Speed at the mile-and-a-half tracks has never been a problem for Truex’s group (remember, he did win Las Vegas to start the playoffs), and Homestead falls into that category. The 2017 series champion is making his fourth Championship 4 appearance in five seasons.
“I know we’re ready for Homestead, and feeling really confident about that,” said Truex after ISM Raceway. “Excited for Homestead, and can’t say enough about everybody back at JGR. To put three cars in the Championship 4 is pretty incredible, so thanks to TRD and Toyota and all those guys, and we’ll see what we can do next week.”
Kevin Harvick is the ‘other’ of the group. The non-Joe Gibbs Racing driver. The sole survivor for Ford. Also a former champion (2014), Harvick is back at Homestead as a contender for the fifth time in six years, and as has been covered on this site, has done so in a season where grinding it out has been the manta of the No. 4 group.
But the playoffs have been a story of incredible consistency on Harvick’s part with an average finish of 6.1. He has turned in results of ninth or better in every race except for Talladega. This driver and team are never to be underestimated, and no challenge thrown their way has been too big to overcome. Taking on three teammates? Won’t faze them in the slightest.
“Beat three Gibbs cars,” said Harvick of his position. “Go faster than them.”
By the numbers:
19 top-five finishes
23 top-10 finishes
920 laps led
9.5 average finish
6 stage wins
37 playoff points
Crew chief: Chris Gabehart
14 top-five finishes
25 top-10 finishes
912 laps led
10.2 average finish
6 stage wins
28 playoff points
Crew chief: Rodney Childers
Martin Truex Jr.
14 top-five finishes
23 top-10 finishes
1,268 laps led
10.0 average finish
8 stage wins
42 playoff points
Crew chief: Cole Pearn
16 top-five finishes
26 top-10 finishes
1,462 laps led
9.2 average finish
11 stage wins
46 playoff points
Crew chief: Adam Stevens