Denny Hamlin: The hero within NASCAR's biggest villain

In recent years, Denny Hamlin has asserted himself as the new big villain in NASCAR. While most fans love to hate him, few see the many values he really brings.
Denny Hamlin, NASCAR
Denny Hamlin, NASCAR / Meg Oliphant/GettyImages

Every sport needs a villain. Having a player, driver, or team to cheer against in unison each and every week creates anger and frustration when they succeed, and better yet, happiness and excitement when they fail. It all becomes amplified even further if they are good at what they do.

Think Brad Marchand of the NHL's Boston Bruins, or Draymond Green of the NBA's Golden State Warriors. They're both great players in their own right, but whether it be their personalities, their antics during competition, or just constant success in their sport, those things all form a combination that makes them easy to root against. It brings the fanbase together and makes it stronger.

NASCAR has had its fair share of villains in its now 76-year history, especially in recent times. Whether it be Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, or even Kevin Harvick in the late 2010s, they have all been disliked at one point or another, only being cheered when they lose or crash out of a race.

Kyle's brother Kurt Busch was once hated so passionately that he made it to ninth on America's most hated athletes list in 2013!

NASCAR's newest villain, Denny Hamlin, is no different in the eyes of most fans. He's a guy with a confident, zero-cares-given attitude who does his talking both on and off the track, and with major success. If you were to define a sports villain and stick it in a dictionary, the version of Hamlin that the NASCAR world has seen for the last few years would fit perfectly.

However, Denny Hamlin's character has a crucial, rare value that many don't recognize.

It's one thing to be confident, outspoken, aggressive, and even hot-tempered to fuel your villain arc. It's another to use your platform on the pedestal of hate for the greater good of the sport. With all due respect to drivers such as Busch and Logano, they are missing that crucial element.

Hamlin, who is very similar in many ways, isn't.

There are many ways in which he does this, but his main way is through the use of his podcast, Actions Detrimental. Unlike any of the villain figures previously mentioned, Hamlin takes to audio and video entertainment each week to discuss the previous race and any controversial moments that came out of it, as well as various issues or topics of discussion around the NASCAR world.

For example, explaining his side of the story from the highly controversial final restart at Richmond Raceway opened up a whole new can of worms for the entire NASCAR community. Whether you agree or disagree with him, it was fantastic to see a driver of his caliber and persona open up on that.

Then there is his criticism of the Next Gen car and all its issues, specifically on short tracks. While Busch has come out and criticized the cars numerous times by simply saying "they suck", Hamlin, while also angered by the racing product, has constantly taken the high road, explaining exactly what the issues are in very fine detail and trying to find solutions rather than strictly dragging it through the mud.

Additionally, his coverage from the perspective of a NASCAR team owner has also done an excellent job in opening the eyes of millions of fans into what life is like away from the track.

Even with his love of turning fans further against him, his engagement with them is second to none.

Perhaps the biggest factor in what has made Hamlin a NASCAR villain has been his constant provoking of the fans.

Rather than simply saying "they can boo all they want, I don't care" like Harvick said after the 2021 Bristol Night Race, Hamlin has instead taken the route of responding to those same boos by either motioning the fans to bring on more boos, like he did at Pocono Raceway in 2023, or on two occasions, reminding those in the grandstands that he beat their favorite drivers.

In addition, he has also repeatedly commended the fans for their efforts in hating on him, posting several pictures to his social media accounts of fans in the stands giving him the "Number One" hand gesture as he drives by, or even hand-drawn signs they made to show their hate.

It's all very cocky and petty, but it's also very funny, entertaining, and engaging, all while providing something different from what any other driver has given the fanbase, maybe ever.

But aside from that, he also stands up for the fans and for what is right for the sport.

Whenever fans speak out on social media and complain about the poor racing on short tracks with the Next Gen car, Hamlin always joins in and backs up their claims with facts from a driver's perspective to add more to the debate.

Plus, who could forget about his public spat with Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO Marcus Smith on X over a supposed "cheap repave" at Sonoma Raceway?

Most recently, after discovering that the infield scoring pylons at both Texas Motor Speedway and Talladega Super Speedway were removed without notice in the last two weeks, Hamlin was the first driver to speak out.

Denny Hamlin is both NASCAR's newest villain and its biggest unsung hero.

For the fans' sake, he gives you a reason to tune in every week or come to the track and enjoy the festivities, whether you love him or hate him. While NASCAR themselves may not like his outspoken nature against some of their decisions, hence the very fitting name of his podcast, it only makes him even more important to the sport.

Hamlin's intent is very clear in every message he sends: to hold everybody in the industry accountable, and to ensure that fans get the full experience and the product they deserve. There are no other drivers, certainly of his caliber and persona, who are willing to take the fall every week for the good of the sport and its fans.

With Hamlin's rising age and ever-rising involvement in the ownership and management of 23XI Racing, it's becoming more and more of a possibility with every passing year that he may soon step out of the driver's seat and walk away.

Next. NASCAR team owners growing frustrated over revenue talks. NASCAR team owners growing frustrated over revenue talks. dark

Only in the weeks and months that follow Hamlin's departure from full-time competition will everybody realize just how valuable he is to NASCAR, and how much of a hero he truly is to the sport.