When Denny Hamlin was 11 years old, he met then Washington football head coach Joe Gibbs at an autograph session. The youngster got his team’s Super Bowl XXVI hat signed. Gibbs got a promise.
On that day in 1992, Hamlin told Gibbs he was going to drive for his NASCAR team one day. Twenty-eight years later, Hamlin is one of the best to have ever strapped into a Gibbs car. His 42 NASCAR Cup Series wins are second-most by any driver in the organization’s history, behind the 52 amassed by Kyle Busch.
Hamlin has won races at short tracks and superspeedways, and he’s also gone to victory lane on a road course. In February, Hamlin became a three-time winner of the Daytona 500 to go with his two Southern 500 victories.
Not only has Hamlin fulfilled his dream of driving for Gibbs, but he’s earned his place within the halls of the team’s Huntersville, North Carolina campus, and NASCAR. There is only one thing Hamlin has not been able to cross off the bucket list and add to his resume, and it’s not hard to figure out what it is.
You might even one of those who has read each sentence and finished it with, “but he hasn’t won a championship.” Maybe you’re amongst the group who believes he never will. That has always been the criticism when it comes to Hamlin, no matter the context.
Take last Thursday night’s Cup Series race. The winner was Hamlin after he passed Kevin Harvick for the Kansas victory and, by extension, the most wins in the series this season (five). Upon tweeting that Hamlin has now won 11 times in the last year-and-a-half with crew chief Chris Gabehart there came a quick reply from a fan, “And still won’t win a championship.” There were two laughing emojis included.
To some, it’s laughable that Hamlin has put in 14 years and never won the big prize. Or that for all he’s accomplished, it doesn’t matter because he hasn’t won the championship. As if Hamlin is not legitimate because of what he lacks.
Here’s something that will likely make all those people laugh too: Hamlin does not need to win a championship.
It wasn’t always that way. Driving for arguably one of the best organization’s in the Cup Series brings the expectation of wins and championships. And Hamlin has come close, but racing circumstances swung in someone’s else favor on multiple occasions.
But what is different today is that Hamlin has accomplished enough that he no longer needs the trophy handed out in November to prop his career up. His broader numbers can stand on their own now.
Hamlin accomplished his goal of winning 40 races before his 40th birthday, which he celebrates in November. Three wins in the Daytona 500 puts him in elite company – a list of just six – who has won the ‘Great American Race’ three or more times. Last month, Hamlin was seven laps away from making Indianapolis the third of four crown jewel races he has won.
Forty-two wins places Hamlin 19th on the all-time wins list for the NASCAR Cup Series. Drivers Hamlin sits ahead include Hall of Famers Mark Martin, Fireball Roberts, Dale Jarrett, the Labonte brothers, and Benny Parsons.
It is also more wins than HoF inductee Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned in his career as well as former teammate Carl Edwards, who was on the most recent HoF ballot. The next four drivers ahead of Hamlin on the wins list are not only Hall of Famers, but former champions: Bill Elliott, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, and Tony Stewart.
Just once has Hamlin had a winless season, 2018. The fewest laps he’s led in one season is 363. There are seven tracks left on the schedule where Hamlin has not won.
“I love winning, and I just want to get as many wins as I possibly can,” said Hamlin after Kansas. “Hopefully, I win the last race of the season. That’s the goal, but there are no guarantees.
“We’re putting together a very, very solid season in many, many aspects and that, to me, is a great season. If we can somehow get to the final four, we have accomplished our goal. From that point on, those last 301 laps or whatever it is at Phoenix, we’ll give it our best shot and see where we stack up.”
Martin, Ricky Rudd, and Jeff Burton are three who come to mind who never won a championship. But all three are still highly respected, and their careers are not mentioned as being any less special or incomplete because they didn’t win a Cup Series championship.
Hamlin should be in that category. Take a good look at the numbers, because Hamlin has put great ones on the board: numbers that will place him in the Hall of Fame when his career is over.
There have been could have, should have championship moments for Hamlin. He led the standings going into the 2010 finale, but spun early at Homestead and wound up second to Jimmie Johnson. That was a week after Hamlin had to pit for fuel, from the lead, at Phoenix, and lost out on extending his point lead.
One of the drivers in the inaugural Championship 4 in 2014, Hamlin was left on track late and had older tires against his competition. He faded to seventh in the finishing order and third in the championship fight.
Seven months ago, Hamlin and Gabehart were putting together a race that was championship-worthy. A top-five contender at Homestead, and keeping pace with Busch, the No. 11 team could have played it safe and perhaps closed the deal.
But Gabehart is aggressive by nature, and admitted they beat themselves by adding a piece of tape to the grille that ultimately led to their Toyota overheating. Hamlin had to make a second unscheduled pit stop less than 50 laps from the finish.
You can tell how much Hamlin has grown over the years, because he isn’t going to let a championship define him. He’s become comfortable with his accomplishments, and can address those numbers and the repeated questions about a championship without a bout of anxiety.
Following a win at Homestead last month, Hamlin was asked whether it was championship or bust this year, and whether a championship defines the ultimate success of a season. Hamlin said no.
“I think a championship nowadays is won in one race,” he explained. “It’s not a big picture of your whole season. Last season was a great season for us; I would have a season like that every year. I would take that.
“I just want to keep winning. That’s all I care about, is just keep winning. Almost like any other sport, you just want to win the last game of the season. We’ll keep going until we win the last one.”
Gabehart drove home the idea of a one-race championship not being something that makes or breaks a season, or a career.
“It’s much different than the way this sport has been years past,” said Gabehart after Kansas. “Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s way more entertaining this way. I think it gives a real treat to the fans to the bitter end of the year, and builds a great crescendo to the final race. I think that’s great. I think that’s where our sport should be. But it’s just one race. There are a lot of things that can go on in that one race, one of which is a 30 square inch piece of tape that just wasn’t put in the right spot, and that is no knock on Denny Hamlin’s career whatsoever. It is something that needs to be put to bed right here and right now. Again, a piece of paper that I’m writing it on doesn’t mean anything, but that’s how I feel about it.
“The goal is to make it to the final race as the final four. For me, last year at Homestead was a party. There was no pressure. It was just our race team belonged there, and we made that goal. What happened out of that one race was just one race. Phoenix (this year) will be no different for us. It will be the same party if we’re fortunate enough to make it again.”
Hamlin can win a NASCAR Cup Series championship, and he very well may before his career is over. If he’s going to do it, it will undoubtedly come with Gabehart atop the pit box.
But Denny Hamlin does not need to win a championship. He’s already proven his worth.