NASCAR: The unfortunate harsh reality for Denny Hamlin

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

After coming up short yet again, Denny Hamlin is still without a NASCAR Cup Series championship through 15 seasons of full-time competition.

One year after winning six races, his highest wins total since the 2010 NASCAR Cup Series season, and setting new career-highs in top five finishes (19), top 10 finishes (24) and average finish (9.5) en route to his first Championship 4 appearance and best finish in the standings since 2014, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin had an even better season in 2020.

He had earned six victories through just 24 of the season’s 36 races, and he ended the year with seven. He led 1,083 laps, the most he had led since 2012, and recorded another career-high average finish of 9.3.

But he again came up shy of winning a championship, despite qualifying for the Championship 4 for the second time in a row — as the only driver who can make that claim — and thus securing back-to-back top four finishes in the standings for the first time in his career.

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Competing against Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott, who had also not won a title, and Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, the 2012 champion and the 2018 champion, respectively, at Phoenix Raceway, Hamlin came in fourth place behind all three. Elliott, 24, ended up winning the title ahead of Keselowski and Logano.

Hamlin also came in fourth place in last year’s Championship 4 as well, finishing behind teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., two former champions, and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, also a former champion.

But now after 15 seasons as a full-time driver and many close calls, Denny Hamlin is still without a NASCAR Cup Series title.

Hamlin has stated multiple times that he won’t judge his career on whether or not he wins a championship, especially given the current Championship 4 format, in which it is entirely possible for a driver to win 35 of the 36 races on the schedule and finish as low as fourth place in the championship standings.

Even though he still wouldn’t have any championships on points alone, history likely won’t judge him that way either, as he has done more than enough to solidify himself as a first-ballot Hall of Famer with 44 victories, including three in the Daytona 500.

But that huge aspect of not having a championship remains after yet another case of oh-so-close for Denny Hamlin.

The 39-year-old Chesterfield, Virginia native is the winningest full-time driver in Cup Series history who has not won a title, having surpassed Mark Martin for that mark this year. Martin won 40 races throughout his career, which spanned from 1981 to 2013, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.

Technically, the late Junior Johnson is the winningest driver of all-time without a title, having won 50 races, but he never competed full-time. In only seven of his 14 seasons did he even compete in more than half of the races on the schedule.

Plus, Hamlin will likely end up with at least 50 victories before he retires anyway, so it won’t matter by that point, and if he doesn’t end up winning a championship, he could end up as the winningest non-champion ever.

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After yet another stellar season, Denny Hamlin again came up shy of winning his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. Is time running out for the soon-to-be quadragenarian to finally claim the trophy?