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 win at Bristol Motor Speedway hurdled Hamlin and his No. 11 team into the second round of NASCAR's playoffs, Hamlin was still pumping his chest.
“It's our year,” Hamlin posted on social media alongside four photos from Saturday night's victory.
He said the same thing to a hostile crowd in the Tennessee mountains. The fans booed Hamlin in driver introductions, booed him when he won his 51st career race and booed him as he celebrated with Bubba Wallace, who drove into the second round of the playoffs to give Hamlin co-owned 23XI Racing both of its cars in the next round alongside the boss, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin shared a back-and-forth with the crowd, and that's when he first declared that this is, finally, his year.
Hamlin is considered NASCAR's greatest driver to never win a Cup title, and in his 18 seasons driving for Gibbs — he just signed an extension — he's come awfully close. He's lost in the head-to-head format, and the winner-take-all final four format.
A year ago, 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 his spot in Phoenix firmly in control. He and the No. 11 team were in the mix to win the playoff openers at Darlington (Kyle Larson) and Kansas (Tyler Reddick) and got another boost at Bristol when Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, former NASCAR champions and Logano the 2022 titleholder, were eliminated.
As Hamlin gnawed on the gladiator-style sword awarded 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 on NASCAR's all-time win list. His victory at Bristol broke a tie with Hall of Fame drivers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson, and every driver ahead of Hamlin on the all-time list has won at least one Cup title.
Hamlin has won every crown jewel on the NASCAR schedule — the Daytona 500 three times, in fact — but he's yet to close out a season with a Cup. The winner-take-all format makes the championship a one-race fight 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.”
The round of 12 includes Hamlin's JGR teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell, as well as the two-car 23XI fleet, for five Toyotas. Truex was the regular season champion and went to Bristol in danger of elimination.
He snuck through when Logano became the first reigning champion to be 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 Kyle Larson and William Byron from Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch from Richard Childress Racing and Chastain of Trackhouse Racing. Ford had three drivers eliminated at Bristol and goes into the second round with Ryan Blaney of Team Penske, and Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher of RFK Racing.
Hamlin only got the win in Bristol but was strong enough to sweep the opening two races, won by Larson and Reddick. His crew chief doesn't want the label as champion favorite, though.
“Certainly I think we’re a final round favorite,” crew chief Chris 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?”
Hamlin has long insisted he's content with his resume, Cup title or not. But he also knows he's running well enough to lose another one.
“I don’t think I’ve been any better. I don’t think our team has been any better. At our best, I know that we’re good enough,” he said.
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