The best NASCAR driver to never win a Cup Series championship believes he can lose that tag this year.
At least that's what Denny Hamlin told the Bristol Motor Speedway crowd on Saturday night as they booed his third win of the year, 51st of his career and third in the prestigious night race at the Tennessee short track.
"It's our year. I just feel we've got it all put together," Hamlin said. "Nothing to stop us at this point."
Hamlin has won the storied season-opening Daytona 500 three times and most of NASCAR's crown jewel races at least once, but he has never secured a Cup Series title in 18 years with Joe Gibbs Racing. He signed a contract extension this month, and his car was among the strongest in the first round of the 10-race playoffs.
He is third behind William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports and JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. with the points reset for NASCAR's second round, with the field trimmed from its original 16 contenders to a dozen.
Joey Logano and fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick were eliminated from title contention as both NASCAR champions failed to advance out of the first round. Logano became the first reigning champion eliminated in the first round after his Team Penske car crashed out early in the third stage and he finished 34th.
He was watching as a spectator while Hamlin, a former teammate at JGR, celebrated.
Harvick, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing and is retiring at the end of the season, also was eliminated after finishing five laps down in 29th. Harvick was the first driver to win the championship in this elimination format when he won the 2014 title.
"We've been like that all year, hit or miss, and tonight we just missed by a mile," Harvick said. "I've had some good days, some bad days, but that's definitely the worst day with fenders. I didn't really have many expectations, as up and down as the year has been. It is what it is, that's probably what we deserved."
Also eliminated were reigning Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of JTG Daugherty Racing and Michael McDowell of Front Row Motorsports, despite finishing sixth. Three Ford teams were eliminated; Stenhouse drives a Chevrolet.
"It wasn't enough. We were in a must-win situation," McDowell said. "This is a learning experience. We'll learn from this, get ready for next year."
For Hamlin, the booing was loud when he stopped his No. 11 Toyota at the finish line. He collected the checkered flag, then verbally sparred with the angry spectators.
"Everyone like a winner, right?" he at first said of the jeers.
He confidently boasted "this is our year" for a championship, then addressed the crowd directly.
"I beat your favorite driver," he taunted.
"Who would that be?" asked the announcer.
"All of them," Hamlin said as he headed off to celebrate, likely with the 23XI Racing team he founded, after Bubba Wallace drove his way into the second round with a 14th-place finish.
Hamlin's jawing with crowds has gone on all season, spilled onto social media, and began at Bristol even before he collected the checkered flag. The drivers introduce themselves at this stop on the circuit, and as he was booed making his entrance, he didn't bother giving his name.
"You know," he said with a smile and walked off the stage.
Wallace gave both 23XI Racing cars spots in the next round by running a clean race. He joined Tyler Reddick, the winner last Sunday at Kansas Speedway, as 23XI drivers to join their team co-owner in the next round.
Wallace also was booed and quoted recent U.S. Women's Open tennis championship winner Coco Gauff for motivating him despite the discouragement.
"God, I love that ...," Wallace said of the boos. "Counted us out. Like Coco Gauff said, 'All they are doing is adding fuel to the fire.' I love it."
He celebrated with team co-owner Michael Jordan, who watched from Wallace's pit stand. Wallace, who is now last in the 12-driver field, said he was "mentally exhausted" after advancing in the playoffs. He slumped to the side of his Toyota for a breather.
"I'm wore out. Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That's what you've got to do," Wallace said. "We know next week's a reset. We've just got to go out and have some fun."
Kyle Larson finished the race second in a Hendrick Chevrolet, followed by JGR's Christopher Bell and Chris Buescher in an RFK Racing Ford, with Ty Gibbs — the only JGR driver who didn't make the playoffs — finishing fifth.
Logano was eliminated just after the halfway point of the race when he drove the No. 22 Ford to the garage with broken parts that were likely catastrophic to his season. He was already 12th in the standings and on the bubble of elimination when he was collected in the crash.
Logano's car was damaged after he ran into Corey LaJoie, who was running 12th when LaJoie spun into Logano's path. Logano took his car to pit road, but once it was determined his damage needed to be addressed in the garage, Logano's night was over.
"We just were fast enough. You can't go down a lap down, you're at the back at Bristol on a restart and they wreck in front of you, and you get caught up," said Logano, who won the title last season to go with his first Cup Series crown in 2018. "It's our own fault. We didn't go fast enough in our Mustang."
The first playoff elimination race of this postseason was paused by rain for nearly 15 minutes at the start of the second stage. The second round of the playoffs begins next weekend with a Sunday race at Texas Motor Speedway, which has only one Cup Series event this year for the first time since 2004. Reddick won the race a year ago, when he was still driving for Richard Childress Racing.
In addition to Byron, Hamlin, Reddick, Truex and Wallace moving on, the remaining contenders include Bell, Buescher, Larson, Penske's Ryan Blaney, RCR's Kyle Busch, Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain and RFK Racing's Brad Keselowski.