Denny Hamlin sits in prime position to navigate to the championship round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, his seven wins helping him pad a comfortable margin in the postseason standings. It wasn’t that long ago — 2018, exactly — Hamlin was in the same spot as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch: frustratingly winless after an early exit from the playoff picture.
A new crew chief (Chris Gabehart) assisted with Hamlin’s rebound into title contention the next year, but it also took some soul-searching and a deep-dive analysis of all parts of his team to regain his winning groove. While there aren’t direct apples-to-apples comparisons between Hamlin ’18 and Busch ’20, Hamlin said he still holds a strong belief in Busch’s abilities, no matter the current win-column goose egg.
“I think it kind of depends on chemistry and things like that but I think certainly at any moment – there’s not one driver out there that doesn’t think that Kyle can win any given week, no matter what the circumstances or what’s going on,” Hamlin said, noting his winless season didn’t come on the heels of a series title the year before. “There’s probably not one driver that doesn’t think that the driver/crew chief combination isn’t good. I think that sometimes you just have off years. That’s just part of major sports. You have off years, and it happens. It’s just one of those years that they got a lot of bad breaks within the 18 team.”
Hamlin will aim to keep his 2020 vibes rolling this weekend for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the opening race in the postseason’s Round of 8. With three races left to set the Championship 4 field, Hamlin carries a 32-point cushion over the playoff cutline. Only nine-time winner Kevin Harvick — plus-45 — has more of a cushion entering the semifinal round.
Hamlin’s fruitless campaign not that long ago ended a 12-year run of at least one victory each season. Busch has four races left to avoid snapping his streak at 15 seasons. In 2018, Hamlin limped out of the postseason in the opening Round of 16; this year, Busch’s repeat title hopes ended in the Round of 12.
Though Hamlin admitted success is sometimes fleeting and often comes and goes in waves, he added that those cyclical downturns aren’t something to merely shrug off. At the suggestion that “racing luck” is a sole factor, Hamlin bristled, saying some level of introspection is a necessary step.
“No, it’s not acceptable. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s just, hey, we’ll chalk it up because everyone has these,” Hamlin said. “No, you have to look at yourself and every person on the team. You have to find all your faults. You have to figure out where you can be better as a driver, where can you be better as a leader, where you can be better as a team. So, no. It’s not that it’s just part of it. There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of work going on and a lot of analyzing going on figuring out why the results have been what they have been.
“It’s not all just luck. Luck is just a stupid word in racing. You’ve got to analyze and figure out where your deficits are and go to work on them, and then sometimes, it’s how you respond that makes you a great leader or not. It’s how do you respond to it when you do have a tough year or a tough week or a tough race. The response is the most important part, not necessarily the immediate result.”