Denny Hamlin downright dominant as NASCAR season pushes on

Joe Gibbs Racing veteran driver's quest for first Cup Series title gains momentum

AP photo by Charlie Riedel / Denny Hamlin (11) zips past Josh Bilicki during Thursday night's NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., where Hamlin earned his series-leading fifth win of 2020.

KANSAS CITY, Kan. - There was no talk of a championship when Denny Hamlin's team met this past winter to discuss goals for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, even though that is just about the only thing the 39-year-old driver has yet to win at stock car racing's highest level.

In fact, team owner Joe Gibbs and crew chief Chris Gabehart didn't even mention the season-ending race in November - which has moved this year from Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway to Phoenix Raceway - where the four remaining playoff drivers will battle for the title.

"His goal has been very simple," Hamlin said of Gibbs, who has won five Cup Series championships as an owner and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year.

"He gave me a list of probably six guys in history that won X number of races. He said, 'You want to be a legend? Get on that list. You win that number of races, you've done something special.'"

Hamlin won't divulge that number, but it must be more than five. That's the number of 2020 wins he hit Thursday night at Kansas Speedway, where he led four times for a race-high 57 laps. He took the lead for the last time on the 255th lap and held off the charging Brad Keselowski of Team Penske over the final 12 laps to make it back-to-back wins for the JGR No. 11 Toyota at the fast 1.5-mile track.

The win broke a tie with Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick for the most this season and gave Hamlin at least five for the second straight year. It also gave him 11 wins in less than two full seasons with Gabehart, whose arrival in 2019 instantly reinvigorated the team - and Hamlin, who was coming off his first winless season since 2005, when he ran just seven races at the end of the schedule before earning the top rookie honor the following season and finishing third in the final points standings.

"This is as good as he's ever been," said former Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the NBC Sports analyst who is set to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next year. "All the pieces are there for him, that's for sure."

photo AP photo by Ray Carlin / Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin stands next to the No. 11 Toyota Camry on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway before the NASCAR Cup Series race on July 19 in Fort Worth.

Together, Hamlin and Gabehart have become the latest "it" team in NASCAR, following in the footsteps of Harvick and Rodney Childers and Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, who combined for a record-tying seven Cup Series championships in their time together. They've built a certain comfort and trust that is rare in the sport, and that's why even on what they call an off night - like at Kansas - they still found a way to coax their Camry to the front.

"Let me just be very blunt: I believe Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are the best to ever get it done. Period," Gabehart said afterward. "The reason is sustainability. The years upon years upon years that they did it is hard to burn the candle that hot for that long. So bar none, I would never put myself in that category. That's not for me to do."

It's not just sustainability, though: It's sealing the deal on the final race weekend of the year.

Hamlin came close to securing the championship in 2010, when he won an astounding eight times only to have his title chances at Homestead torpedoed by a poor qualifying showing and some minor damage during the race. He had another painful finale last November, when Gabehart's aggressive decision to tape off the front of the car late in the race caused some overheating and allowed JGR's Kyle Busch to win the title, his second in five seasons.

Suddenly, Hamlin - who has finished fourth or better in the final standings four times - is carrying around the tag of "best driver never to win a Cup Series championship," just like the PGA Tour's Phil Mickelson did for so many years when it came to major golf championships. It doesn't matter that Hamlin's 42 wins in the Cup Series rank fourth among active drivers, or that he and Harvick have seemingly turned this season into a two-team race.

"We're working towards it. We're doing everything we can," Hamlin said. "We've certainly had some slip out of our hands that we wish we could have back. But you can't do it. We have five. We have some more chances. We just have to keep digging. That's my goal: to win as many races as I can, and hopefully the last one of the season is the last race."

With the Cup Series off for the weekend - the circuit returns to competition next Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway - Hamlin had a few things working for him heading down the stretch of the regular season.

For one thing, the JGR stable started to gain some momentum at Kansas. Martin Truex Jr. finished behind Keselowski in third, and Erik Jones finished behind Harvick to give the team three of the top five finishers. Busch was a bit farther back in 11th, but he also won a stage to earn his first playoff point of the season.

For another thing, Hamlin is coming up to a run of tracks he likes. He has won three times at New Hampshire and twice at Michigan International Speedway, which will host Cup Series races on back-to-back days Aug. 8-9. If Hamlin advances in the playoffs, he'd return to Kansas in October for the round of eight drivers, and the penultimate race is at Martinsville Speedway, the circuit's shortest track and a place where he also has won five times.

If he then becomes one of the final four contenders at Phoenix, he'll be racing for a championship at a track where he won last year.

"We can win every single week," Hamlin said. "I know my equipment is good enough to do it. I still need to get better at some tracks, but certainly I go to the track every week expecting to win. If we have what we call a green race where no mistakes are made, we're in the top five with a shot to win.

"It's on me to have those green races."