AVONDALE, Arizona — Denny Hamlin began the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season in the best way possible – with an emotional win in the Daytona 500 after the passing of friend and teammate J.D. Gibbs. Fast forward 34 races, now the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry has found victory lane five times and could be the favorite to win the Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But now the 15-year series veteran finds himself in an all too familiar position. After what could be deemed one of Hamlin’s most dominant performances since competing at the Cup level, he sits fifth in the Playoff standings, facing a 20-point deficit he must overcome to advance his way to Miami.
“No matter what I will not consider this year any sort of failure,” Hamlin told POPULAR SPEED. “We had a great year, we won races, we competed, we led more laps than we have in a long time, we have more top-fives than anybody in the series – it’s been a really good year.”
In conjunction to the 38-year old driver leading NASCAR’s premier series in top-five finishes, he also leads his fellow competitors with an impressive 9.7 average finishing position on the season – the only driver to average a finish above 10th.
While Hamlin knows he is not in a must-win scenario this weekend at ISM Raceway, he acknowledges the fact that with the Playoff format, he must have a solid points day and ultimately capitalize on – at the bare minimum – a top-five finish.
“We all play by the rules, we know what the format is, but it doesn’t always work out for you,” said the Virginia-native. “It’s extremely difficult to win one of these [championships] and we’re content either way.”
In a shocking turn of events, a very humble and poised Hamlin accepted the fact that he could very well never win a championship during his Cup Series tenure, but he has found solace in this possibility. He recounts a exchange with NASCAR legend, Mark Martin, who similarly had a very storied career in the sport but never hoisted a championship trophy.
Martin – who totaled 40 wins in his illustrious Cup Series career – told Hamlin that looking back, winning a championship wouldn’t make any difference in his life right now. He still managed to have a very storied and respect career.
“I’m at that point right now,” the driver of the No. 11 admitted. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what I’m capable of, my competitors know what I’m capable of. I really appreciate all the love the media has been giving me over the last three weeks – it’s been incredible – but I think we have to give some love to the other competitors as well.”
Hamlin adamantly relayed that every driver in the Playoffs should receive equal attention and exposure. He believes anyone in the post-season has a shot at advancing to the series finale at Homestead and should be treated with the utmost respect.
As the 38-year old nears the conclusion of his 15th season, it’s evident that series veteran has matured and Hamlin says this has been a major benefactor to his on-track success.
“I’ve definitely grown, no doubt about it,” said the Toyota Racing driver. “I’ve have major life changes this year, so I’ve had to grow and change and that’s really helped on-track things as well. If it ends up that our year is over after this weekend, then I can’t wait to get back to the racetrack in 2020. It was so much fun racing this year and having a shot to win every single weekend – it was a pleasure.”
Hamlin drove his way to victory lane at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway in the Spring of 2012. In 28 races at the 1.5-mile speedway, he has 12 top-fives and 16 top-10’s with an average finish of 11.3. The 312 Lap event in the desert will not be an easy one for the driver of the No. 11, but with the new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, it’s essentially anyone’s race to win.
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