Cup Series veteran Denny Hamlin not backing down in belief he can finally win title

Bristol Herald Courier photo by Emily Ball via AP / Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin celebrates in victory lane at Bristol Motor Speedway after winning Saturday night's race at the Tennessee short track.
Bristol Herald Courier photo by Emily Ball via AP / Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin celebrates in victory lane at Bristol Motor Speedway after winning Saturday night's race at the Tennessee short track.

Denny Hamlin didn't chill Sunday with his bravado that this is indeed the year he will finally win a NASCAR championship.

The day after his victory in a night race at Bristol Motor Speedway hurtled Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota team into the second round of the Cup Series playoffs, the 42-year-old driver was still pumping his chest.

"It's our year," Hamlin posted on social media alongside four photos from Saturday night's victory at the Tennessee short track.

He said the same thing to a hostile crowd at Bristol. The fans booed Hamlin in driver introductions, booed him when he earned the 51st win of his Cup Series career, then booed him as he celebrated with Bubba Wallace, who drove into the second round of the playoffs as 23XI Racing — the team Hamlin co-owns with basketball legend Michael Jordan — drove both of its cars in the next round alongside the boss.

Hamlin shared a back-and-forth exchange with the crowd, and that's when he first declared that this is his year. Finally.

He is considered NASCAR's greatest driver to never win a Cup Series title, but he has come awfully close in his 18 seasons driving for JGR (he just signed a contract extension). He has fallen just short in the head-to-head format as well as the winner-take-all final four format.

A year ago, though, Hamlin didn't even make it to the final four. Ross Chastain used a last-lap, video-game-style move to slingshot past Hamlin and beat him for a spot in the championship round on points.

This year, Hamlin wants to be sure he has a title-contending spot in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway come November. He was in the mix to win the first two races of the playoffs at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway (Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson was the winner) and Kansas Speedway (23XI's Tyler Reddick), and he got another boost at Bristol when former Cup Series champions Joey Logano (2018, 2022) and Kevin Harvick (2014) were eliminated.

As Hamlin gnawed on the gladiator-style sword awarded to the Bristol winner, he played to the booing reception.

"At some point I've got to realize, 18 years in, that I'm probably not going to win the most popular driver award. I've come to the conclusion of that. I understand it," Hamlin said of the way crowds have been receiving him this season.

"They think they bother me. But clearly it's having an opposite effect. I welcome any fan to want to come to the dark side. All five of my fans are still out there chanting my name."

Maybe this will be the year for Hamlin, who ranks 13th in Cup Series career wins. His victory at Bristol broke a tie with NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson, and every driver ahead of Hamlin on the all-time victories list has won at least one Cup Series title.

Hamlin has won every crown jewel race on the NASCAR schedule -- including three Daytona 500 victories -- but has yet to close out a season with the big prize. The winner-take-all format makes the championship battle a one-race fight among four drivers that Hamlin isn't looking ahead to just yet.

"I'm just looking to try to get there, try to get to Phoenix. Once we get there, I'll focus on what it will take to be the best that day," he said. "We know week in, week out, if we're at our best, we can't be beat. I just don't think so.

"Certainly this year is different. I told you guys before the playoffs started, this year just feels different with the capabilities of our team and the speed we're showing."

With the field of contenders now down from 16 drivers to 12 for the next three races, the playoff field includes Hamlin's JGR teammates Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr., as well as the two-car 23XI fleet, for five Toyotas.

Truex was the regular-season champion but went to Bristol in danger of elimination. He slipped through when Logano became the first reigning champion ever eliminated in the first round.

"I don't know that this round could have gone any worse," Truex said. "Definitely excited about the next round and the reset; hopefully we will keep from having so much bad luck."

Chevrolet pushed through with Larson and Hendrick teammate William Byron, Richard Childress Racing's Kyle Busch and Trackhouse Racing's Chastain. Ford had three drivers eliminated at Bristol and goes into the second round with Team Penske's Ryan Blaney and RFK Racing's Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski.

"I don't think I've been any better," Hamlin said. "I don't think our team has been any better. At our best, I know that we're good enough."

Hamlin's crew chief, Chris Gabehart, doesn't want his team to wear the label of favorite in the championship fight. Not yet, anyway.

"Certainly I think we're a final round favorite," Gabehart said. "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. Certainly why not us?"

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