Denny Hamlin is one of the greatest drivers of this generation, but he has yet to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship. Has his last real chance come and gone?
Denny Hamlin is one of the best drivers of this generation. Since entering the NASCAR Cup Series in 2005, he has been one of the winningest and most consistent drivers in the sport.
In his 650 career Cup Series starts, he has scored 51 wins, 222 top five finishes, and 340 top 10 finishes. He has also finished inside the top five in the point standings nine times, including in each of the last five years. He has three third place finishes, including one in his rookie season, as well as a runner-up finish in 2010.
All of these numbers put him near the top of each category when compared to other drivers of similar age and experience from the current era, namely Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, two all-time greats with whom he has gone toe-to-toe and beaten many times.
Despite recently turning 43 years old, Hamlin has shown no signs of slowing down. The Virginia native had two of his best seasons in 2022 and 2023, only to miss out on the Championship 4 after Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon” at Martinsville Speedway in 2022 and a steering failure at Homestead Miami Speedway in 2023.
Even with all his impressive accolades throughout his 18-year career, there is still one thing missing from his trophy cabinet: a NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Of course, not all of it is his fault. In fact, most of it isn’t.
Whether it was a botched pit strategy in the 2014 finale that all but gave the title to Harvick or this year’s mechanical failure, Hamlin has seemingly found every possible way to lose a championship when he already had one hand on the trophy.
On the other hand, he has also cost himself in big moments, too.
Hamlin had the championship virtually sewn up in his eight-win 2010 campaign before a late-season run of poor form, a classic Jimmie Johnson title run, and a nightmare final race allowed the title to slip away.
In 2017, when competing for a spot in the Championship 4 at Martinsville, Hamlin made an enemy in Chase Elliott, which cost him dearly in the cutoff race at Phoenix Raceway when Elliott got his revenge and took him out.
Even in 2021, when Hamlin set a career high for top five finishes in a single season with 19, he simply couldn’t find the speed in the finale, and he didn’t get it done.
Whether it’s misfortune, Hamlin being his own worst enemy, or even the modern points format, the goose egg next to the championship tally of such a talented driver is not ideal.
Time is running out for Denny Hamlin to break through for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, and it won’t get any easier.
Over the course of his career, particularly the last handful of years, Hamlin has made a habit of being a consistent challenger, someone who always finds himself at the front and scoring solid results, whether he wins or not.
While consistency used to win championships, it doesn’t anymore, simply because of NASCAR’s bracket-style playoff format. The sport, and the competitors around him, have changed.
With the “win and in” points structure in the sport today, it’s clear that Hamlin’s mentality, or even his overall racing style, just hasn’t suited the new format. He makes his hay over an entire season of work, rather than just one race.
Harvick said it best after he was eliminated in the round of 8 in 2020, despite having had one of the most dominant seasons of modern-day NASCAR.
"“These championships aren’t like winning like Petty and Earnhardt used to win them. You have to put them together three weeks at a time. It comes down to one race. It came down to one race for us tonight (Martinsville fall race in 2020), and we came up short.”"
A big issue with that, in the case of Hamlin, is that those around him, particularly the younger, newer generation of drivers have taken well to the playoff format and ultimately embraced it.
Why? Because it’s all they’ve known.
Kyle Larson’s rookie season was 2014, the first year of the modern playoff format. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney both entered the sport full-time in 2016, while William Byron entered the sport in 2018, with the new structure already in its fifth season of existence — and stage racing only in its second.
These drivers, at the top level of stock car racing, have only ever competed under a format that rewards winning first and consistency second. They have mastered their craft around this style of racing and have never had to do it any other way. Hamlin, among others, has not had that same luxury.
Not only have these younger drivers taken to the new playoff format, but they are also getting better and slowly taking over the sport.
In 2021, 2022, and 2023, respectively, Larson, Elliott, and Byron led the series in wins. Blaney’s 2023 championship, coupled with Elliott’s 2020 title and Larson’s 2021 title, meant that the title has now been won by a driver under the age of 30 in three of the last four years, with Joey Logano’s 2022 title at the age of 32 being the lone exception.
Additionally, the average age of the 2023 season’s Championship 4 drivers was the youngest since the format’s inception, and the guys who were once harped on for not being capable of challenging the old dogs are now teaching those same dogs new tricks.
Has Denny Hamlin had his last real chance of winning a NASCAR Cup championship?
Hamlin has shown no signs of slowing down, proven by his back-to-back stellar seasons the last two years. Taking that into account, it would be easy to bet on the No. 11 team to contend for wins week in and week out in 2024.
However, Father Time stops for nobody. Eventually, it is going to catch up with Hamlin, and it could very well be sudden, as we have seen with Tony Stewart and Johnson, most notably.
It is also difficult to envision the driver of the No. 11 Toyota putting up the numbers he has over the last bunch of years in future seasons. And even during his stellar 2022 and 2023 campaigns, he failed to make it to the Championship 4.
Given his age and the ever-ascending form of drivers such as Byron, Blaney, Larson, Elliott, and Christopher Bell as they enter their primes, it is going to be tough. Hamlin had several chances in his prime to win a championship, and for one reason or another, he failed to do so in each.
It’s easy to suggest that Hamlin’s best chance at a championship has probably come and gone. But that doesn’t mean that his last chance at a title has also passed him by.
What you have with Hamlin heading into next year is a savvy, veteran driver, part of the exclusive 50-win club, who is as confident as ever. He has reiterated time and time again the last few years that he is out there to win as many races as he can, and his unfortunate playoff eliminations the last two years will only add fuel to the fire burning inside of him.
Even if Hamlin were to finish his NASCAR career without a Cup Series championship, he will still go down as one of the greatest drivers of all-time, and undoubtedly the best driver to have never won a title. It’s a career that nobody should ever be ashamed of.