The 2023 season may be Denny Hamlin’s best chance to win his first NASCAR Cup Series title.
Of course, the same could have been said in 2010. Or 2014. Or 2019. Or 2020. Or 2021. You get the point. Hamlin’s had a lot of great chances to win a Cup Series title and has come up empty every single time.
But there’s reason to believe that 2023 could actually be the year Hamlin lifts the trophy. His win Saturday night at Bristol was his third of the season. Only William Byron has more. He has 11 top-10 finishes. Only Kyle Larson has more. He’s scoring the most points per race of any driver through the first 29 races of the season.
And perhaps most importantly, Hamlin has some serious confidence.
“I don’t think I’ve been any better,” Hamlin said after his Bristol win. “I don’t think our team has been any better. At our best, I know that we’re good enough.”
Hamlin, 42, has plenty of reasons to be confident. He recently signed a contract extension to stay at Joe Gibbs Racing for the foreseeable future. The 23XI Racing team he co-owns with Michael Jordan has both of its drivers in the second round of the playoffs, too, after Tyler Reddick won at Kansas on Sept. 10 and Bubba Wallace raced his way into the Round of 12 on points at Bristol on Saturday night. In basic terms, there’s currently a 25% chance Hamlin will become a Cup Series champion at the end of this season either as an owner or a driver.
“I’m very happy with the trajectory that whole organization’s on,” Hamlin said of 23XI Racing. “I mean, not three years complete, to have two cars now in the Round of 12, very humbling. Certainly our goal going into the year was to have two cars in the playoffs. Now to have two in the next round, this is just icing on the cake.”
As a driver, Hamlin is far past the icing on the cake part of his career when it comes to playoff advancement. Saturday night’s win was the 51st of Hamlin’s career and broke a tie with Junior Johnson to make Hamlin the winningest driver in Cup Series history without a title.
Hamlin looked on track to win his first title in 2010. He won a series-high eight races and won the eighth race of the 10-race postseason to take a 33-point lead on Jimmie Johnson with two races to go. But an ill-advised pit call in the penultimate race of the season allowed Johnson to take 18 points out of Hamlin’s lead and Johnson won his fifth consecutive title the following week with a second-place finish at Homestead as Hamlin finished 14th after starting 37th.
In 2014, Hamlin won just one race but found himself among the four drivers racing for a title in NASCAR’s first year of its elimination playoff format. Hamlin looked to have the car to beat over the second half of that race but a decision not to pit late in the race meant the title came down to a battle between Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman.
Five years later, Hamlin won six races and had 24 top-10 finishes and started on the pole for the season finale at Homestead. But his team put too much tape on the grille during a pit stop and he was forced to pit from third because his car was overheating.
In 2020, Hamlin finished fourth at Phoenix in the season finale and was the only driver racing for the title who failed to lead a lap. Two years ago, Hamlin finished third behind champion Kyle Larson and teammate Martin Truex Jr. He once again failed to lead a lap.
Getting to the final race with a shot to win the title isn’t Hamlin’s problem at this point. And at some point, something has to break his way, right?
“Certainly I think we’re a final round favorite,” crew chief Chris Gabehart said Saturday night. “Then you get to Phoenix and it’s one race. But yeah, we’re executing at a super-high level. We have all the pieces put together to do it.”
Hamlin is absolutely a favorite to get to the final round. He’s the No. 2 title favorite at BetMGM (+450) behind Larson (+400). The speed the No. 11 team has shown on a weekly basis makes that status well-deserved.
But it’s also fair to wonder if it’s now or never for Hamlin and his No. 11 team. Recent NASCAR history is not kind to drivers in their 40s. Just two drivers have won titles in their 40s over the past 25 years: Jimmie Johnson was 41 when he won his seventh and final Cup Series title in 2016 and Dale Jarrett was 43 when he won his only Cup Series title in 1999.
Simply put, Hamlin may not have many more opportunities to avoid being in an eternal debate with Mark Martin as the best Cup Series driver without a title. And unlike it was for Martin’s career, Hamlin’s lack of a title has been largely defined by the inability to be the best in the one race where it mattered most.
“Certainly nights like [Saturday night] are certainly pleasing after having a couple of weeks of like, ‘Darn, we should have got ‘em,’ ” Hamlin said. “Keep knocking on the door, keep showing up, keep making the final four, eventually your number will be called. Hopefully this is the year for it to be called.”