NASCAR: Denny Hamlin departure rumors overblown or justified?

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR, Cup Series (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR, Cup Series (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Rumors have heated up this summer that Denny Hamlin may leave Joe Gibbs Racing for Hendrick Motorsports after the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. But are they even remotely feasible?

Prior to the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series season, Denny Hamlin signed a multi-year contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and stated that he would be “much grayer” by the time he needed to renew his deal.

Given the fact that he had previously signed five-year deals, it was believed that this contract ran through at least the 2021 season. The Chesterfield, Virginia native turned 39 years old last November and is only a few months younger than Martin Truex Jr., the oldest of the team’s four drivers.

However, with the 40-year-old Truex and the 35-year-old Kyle Busch, two former champions, under contract through at least next year and with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota desiring to keep both 24-year-old Erik Jones and 25-year-old Christopher Bell, who drives for the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Leavine Family Racing, within the organization, Hamlin has been mentioned as the potential odd man out.

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With that being said, on the performance side, this wasn’t thought to be much of an issue, nor should it have been. Maybe it was after Hamlin’s winless 2018 season, but not anymore.

The driver of the #11 Toyota qualified for the Championship 4 last season with six victories, including a Daytona 500 win, and he has cemented himself as a championship favorite this season with another Daytona 500 win an additional four victories. Why try to fix what isn’t broken?

However, Joe Gibbs Racing gave a 45-year-old Matt Kenseth the boot after the 2017 season to make room for Jones, despite the fact that Kenseth had won 20 races in the six seasons leading up to the 2017 campaign, and there is no denying that the youth movement is real.

And that’s where the rumors come into play.

Not having room for both Jones and Bell could cause one or the other to end up in the hands of a rival organization, which is the last thing a team with two quadragenarians (using Hamlin’s 2021 age) needs.

With Jones in a contract year and with Leavine Family Racing having confirmed that they will no longer field a team after 2020, it could come down to one or the other. Unless another technical alliance is formed by Joe Gibbs Racing ahead of 2021, one of them will have to walk — that is, unless Hamlin ends up changing teams.

FedEx’s contract with the team is believed to end at the end of the 2020 season, and they have been Hamlin’s lone primary sponsor throughout his 15-year full-time career.

Still, not much thought was given to Hamlin actually leaving the one and only team for which he has ever driven, especially not this soon.

But then the internet did what it does best — and at just the right time.

Hamlin, who needs sponsorship in place to be able to continue on his current contract, happened to be offered a boat ride with team owner Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon earlier this summer, amid rumors swirling about Leavine Family Racing’s future, or lack thereof — rumors that have since been confirmed.

Gordon also happens to be the co-owner of the #48 Chevrolet, which is still without a driver for next year since seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson announced in November that the 2020 season will be his last.

We are now more than one month past this boat ride, and Hendrick Motorsports have yet to confirm who Johnson’s replacement will be.

Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, 36, had been rumored to replace Johnson as the team’s veteran presence. But that won’t happen, as he re-signed with Team Penske earlier this week.

Hamlin could serve as the perfect veteran replacement for Johnson to mentor the young trio of 27-year-old Alex Bowman, the 24-year-old Chase Elliott and the 22-year-old William Byron, and that would allow Joe Gibbs Racing to sign both Jones and Bell to long-term deals.

It all makes sense. So what’s really going on here?

With all things considered, especially in this day and age, it’s hard, if not impossible, to see Hendrick allowing a driver confirmation, or any form of official business for that matter, to become leaked on a driver’s Instagram story.

That almost goes without saying — or maybe that’s what you’re supposed to think.

It’s also not even remotely uncommon for individuals from different teams to interact with one another off of the race track. They are, after all, still human beings capable of doing human being things other than driving cars at 200 miles per hour for their respective organizations and sponsors. The archnemesis complex is, generally speaking, saved for the race track.

Hamlin himself effectively chalked it up to “not much” and didn’t even mention the rumor side of things when discussing the post after winning at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, June 28.

“They called and wanted to see if I wanted to go on a boat ride,” he said. “I said yes. I had nothing else to do. It was fun to say the least. I was nervous. I’ll be honest with you, I was a little nervous. I think 60 is the fastest I’ve ever gone on water. Blew that out of the water.”

Of course, sometimes the best things are left unsaid.

Hamlin has said on multiple occasions that he has no plans to retire anytime soon, and his performance alone is enough to solidify those plans.

The simplest solution, assuming Hamlin is still driving the #11 Toyota next year, would be for Jones to be released and signed by another organization, allowing Bell to replace him behind the wheel of the #20 Toyota.

But Jones is already in talks with the team about an extension, and a potential crew chief change, much like the one we saw with Hamlin after his disastrous 2018 campaign, could be on the horizon.

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However, even if Jones re-signs, the simplest solution would be for Bell to join another team. Both Jones and Bell would be highly sought after as free agents by multiple top-tier organizations.

But naturally, neither solution is preferable as far as the young drivers are concerned from Joe Gibbs Racing’s standpoint, and that alone is cause for speculation as far as Hamlin’s future, as crazy as it may seem.