If not now, when?
This has been the question many have asked when it comes to Denny Hamlin’s inability to finally overcome his postseason woes and win the NASCAR Cup Series championship. It looked as though the Joe Gibbs Racing driver would become a multi-time champion after finishing third in points in his first full-time season. However, this has not been the case and it seems as though the title will be the one thing that evades Hamlin in his highly-successful career. 2020 may be a different story for him though.
When looking at Hamlin’s career, there’s a trend of the driver not being able to perform to his abilities in the closing races of a season. He finished his 2006 season strong but had three-straight finishes of 18th or worst in the “Chase For the Cup” at Kansas, Talladega and Charlotte. Remember that in that postseason format, it was about consistency and scoring points. Hamlin didn’t do well enough in that stretch, which allowed Jimmie Johnson to pull away and win his first of seven championships.
In 2009, Hamlin finished fifth in the championship. After the opening postseason race at New Hampshire, he was second in points. His championship bid faltered after a six-race stretch where he finished 22nd or worst, including three DNFs. He faded as far as 11th in the standings but rallied late in the season and even won at Homestead to finish top five in points.
Same story goes in his 2012 season. Hamlin was third in points following a second-place finish at Charlotte. In four of the last five races of the season, Hamlin finished outside the top 10 and wound up sixth in points.
The era of the playoff format has not done Hamlin any favors either as he failed to reach the Championship 4 from 2015-2018.
Last season, he reached the Championship 4 after winning the final Round of 8 race at Phoenix. He was in a good position to win at Homestead but a mistake on a pit stop ended up costing him the title when it was all said and done.
This season has arguably been Hamlin’s best. He’s matched his career-high average finish from last year at 9.5. He’s won seven races (second-most for a season in his career) and has scored 17 top-five finishes (second-most for a season in his career). However, like year’s past, he has struggled in the postseason. Hamlin has finished outside the top 10 in six of the nine playoff races so far. He won at Talladega to solidify his spot in the Round of 8 but he had to earn his way on points alone and nearly advanced to the Championship 4 after Kevin Harvick’s misfortunes at Martinsville.
Hamlin may be reeling late this season but he still has a chance to finally be champion at one of his better tracks.
Historically, Phoenix is Hamlin’s seventh-best track (excluding the Daytona road course) as he boasts two wins and 17 top-10’s in 30 career races. With being the previous Fall winner at Phoenix, Hamlin’s confidence should be through the roof.
His chances of winning the title hang on whether or not we get the maturity and growth he has shown on and off the race track at this point in his career, or if the trends of his lack of closing out seasons strong will bring an end to his title hopes once again. I believe in the former. It also helps that every champion since 2014 has won at Homestead *wink*.
Denny Hamlin will win the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship 10 days before his 40th birthday.