Regardless of the outcome Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been a success for Denny Hamlin.
On the one hand, Hamlin is championship eligible going into the season finale, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver believes just making it to Miami represents the culmination of a year’s work. But equally, what Hamlin has accomplished this year should send a clear message to his critics about his abilities.
“I think outside people have been more optimistic about my talents than maybe I have at times, but there’s also times where I’ll do something, last week for instance, and I’m like, I am pretty (expletive) good at this,” said Hamlin on Thursday. “I can do this. I know I’ve won big races. I have stepped up to the plate when it’s really mattered.
“It hasn’t always equaled a championship, but I definitely think that the narrative should be changed simply based off of last week. I mean, that (ISM Raceway) was going to be our final race unless we won it. We’ve won [the] Daytona 500 in the closest finish coming from behind on the final lap (in 2016). Those are clutch moments, right?”
Hamlin was indeed clutch at ISM, overcoming a 20-point deficit on the playoff grid. By taking one of the final four spots, Hamlin also knocked out the reigning series champion Joey Logano and ended the opportunity for the Penske driver to become the first back-to-back champion under this playoff format.
Last weekend, Hamlin did what he had to do. In a do-or-die scenario, the 14-year Cup Series veteran prevailed – like he did at Pocono over the summer when making the fuel mileage work. Or at Texas in the spring, rebounding from a speeding penalty. In February, Hamlin won his second Daytona 500.
Except, there have also been moments on the flip side of the coin — races and situations where Hamlin looked unable to handle the moment.
“I just think any time you have a goose egg in the big category, the championships, people will always put together, well, why didn’t that happen? Well, he choked in 2010,” said Hamlin. “Well, in Phoenix (that year), I was kicking everyone’s ass. My car ran out of gas. Essentially I would have had to start my car in Homestead (the next week), and certainly, I made terrible decisions in Homestead. I still had a very, very good chance to win it.
“That was one of the moments where I was so distraught from Phoenix, Homestead was a complete blur because I was so enraged with, I can’t believe we’re in the situation, we should be able to cruise through this weekend. But that was not having the mentality of, so what, now what, can’t help what happened, let’s move on, let’s figure out what we can do right now.”
Hamlin said his confidence has never been higher than right now. Statistically, with a race to go, he has already had a career year in top-10 and top-five finishes, while winning the most races in a single season since 2010 and has accumulated the best average finish (9.5) of any of the previous 13 years.
A year like this goes “a long way,” said Hamlin. “A long way. There’s no doubt. I can’t sit here and minimize it, how much it means to me personally to have a season like this and win under the circumstances that we’ve won.”