Denny Hamlin knows this territory.
On three previous occasions, Hamlin has advanced to the NASCAR Cup Championship 4 only to see his hopes for a first series title dashed. At 40 years old (he turns 41 on Nov. 18), Hamlin hasn’t even hinted at retirement, but he must be looking at the facts and figuring his chances at entering the throne room are going to become dimmer as the seasons roll on.
Racing Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson for the championship this weekend at Phoenix, Hamlin arrives in the desert with a sense of purpose perhaps beyond those of his challengers. A late-race altercation with eventual race winner Alex Bowman last week at Martinsville Speedway almost ended Hamlin’s shot at making the Championship 4 and launched him into a post-race tirade that included defining Bowman as a “hack,” among other things.
Hamlin said Thursday he enters the weekend with a certain amount of fire.
“To me it’s fuel,” he said. “I have so much fuel in my tank right now from just motivation. There’s a lot of motivation there.
“People don’t get into my head in a negative way. I turn it into positives, into motivation. Some people like to go in a hole and hide from it. I do not. I go at it head-on. Anyone who’s around me knows. A lot of you in the media who have followed my career—when things go haywire or s— hits the fan, I usually come out swinging. We will come out swinging again.”
Hamlin can boast of some good history at Phoenix. He leads the four championship contenders with Phoenix wins at two, and his total laps led at the one-mile track is 854. He has 15 career top fives at Phoenix. Among the Championship 4, his average finish at the track of 10.8 is best.
Consistency defined the 2021 season—his 16th—for Hamlin. He burst out of the gates in style, finishing fifth in the Daytona 500 and third in the Daytona road-course race. In the first nine races, he finished in the top five eight times, and the strong start put him in position to lead the point race for the first 22 races of the season. He completed 99.9 percent of the laps run this year.
Hamlin’s average finish this year is 8.6, the best on the circuit and a remarkable number considering the many things that can go wrong from week to week. He was particularly strong in the playoffs, winning the opening race at Darlington and winning again in the first race of the Round of 8 at Las Vegas. Playoff points were critical to Hamlin’s entry into the Championship 4, overcoming his 24th-place finish last week at Martinsville after the incident with Bowman.
Now, once again, he searches for that elusive championship.
“I certainly know that I am a championship-caliber driver,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind. Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn’t always been good enough. But certainly we are as deserving as any.”
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