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September 18, 2023

Analysis: Denny Hamlin embraces heel persona in yet another title hunt

BRISTOL, Tenn. — It’s Denny Hamlin’s world, and we’re just living in it.

Such is the case after a dominant opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 team. Yes, Hamlin left the Round of 16 with just one win in those three races, but the three-time Daytona 500 champion led at least 63 laps in each of those postseason events — 177 at Darlington Raceway, 63 at Kansas Speedway and 142 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night, when he finally broke back into Victory Lane to capitalize on all that speed.

MORE: Hamlin speaks to the Bristol crowd | All of Hamlin’s Cup victories

Climbing from his purple and white Toyota to claim the checkered flag at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile, Hamlin was welcomed by plenty more jeers than cheers. All in a day’s work, even — and maybe especially — after win No. 51 for Hamlin.

“Everybody likes a winner, right?” Hamlin smirked in his frontstretch interview as boos rumbled around him in Thunder Valley.

Hamlin has never shied away from voicing opinions on any NASCAR topic, no matter how well those thoughts are received. Whether he’s asked about his competitors, the car, the track or the business — the last of which he sees more of these days as co-owner of 23XI Racing — Hamlin speaks. So when the fans talk back, it comes as no surprise that Hamlin is leaning into the role of NASCAR’s “heel” — the guy you love to hate.

Hey, I beat your favorite driver,” Hamlin told the stadium-like crowd at Bristol. “All of them.”

Hamlin wasn’t always so brash — in part because he wasn’t always so jeered. The inaugural vocal displeasure was most noticeable nearly six years ago, when contact for the lead from Hamlin to Chase Elliott’s rear bumper sent Elliott spinning with less than three laps to go at Martinsville Speedway — one of Hamlin’s home-state tracks. Elliott, these days a five-time recipient of the Most Popular Driver Award, was cheered as he confronted Hamlin — while Hamlin was hammered by boos when his interview hit the public-address system.

The banter with fans has gotten louder in recent years, and Bristol was certainly no exception. When Hamlin was victorious for a record-breaking seventh time at Pocono Raceway this summer, he told spectators they could boo the commemorative rock the track will almost certainly display with Hamlin’s name and number once the veteran racer retires.

“I mean, at some point I’ve got to realize 18 years in that I’m probably not going to win the Most Popular Driver Award,” Hamlin said at Bristol. “I’ve come to the conclusion of that. I understand it. 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. They’re over in Turn 3 right now.

“But yeah, as Katt Williams said: A hater can’t stand a winner.”

Denny Hamlin hoists the sword awarded to him for winning at Bristol in Victory Lane
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

The center of attention can be intimidating for anybody, let alone an athlete who spends three-plus hours inside a metal cage wearing a fire suit, helmet and gloves while temperatures ratchet to 125-plus degrees Fahrenheit. But Saturday night, inside the 0.533-mile bullring arena that is Bristol Motor Speedway, Hamlin seemed perfectly comfortable.

“That’s why I love this track, right?” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s cheers or boos, you’ve earned the right to be on that stage for that given moment, for that interview or whatever it might be. It’s gratifying.

“I mean, I’m a person that feeds off of that because I know my hard work has paid off, right? As tough as it is, it’s like Deion (Sanders, University of Colorado head football coach) says: What in me thinks I care about what you think about me? Because it’s not the same opinion I have of myself, right?

“I know who I am. I know how I treat people. It’s OK, right? It’s OK to have fandom one way or another. But to have just electricity, that’s fun. This is a really fun moment in sports. It’s really fun in NASCAR to have that many fans passionate one way or another, right? That’s good for our sport.”

The way Hamlin is running these days, don’t expect that chatter to start dissipating. The No. 11 Toyota led 382 laps — 33.7% of all circuits completed — over the first three races of the 2023 postseason and netted a third Cup win this season, his most since 2020 when he went to Victory Lane seven times.

Still missing from his resume, though, is a NASCAR Cup Series championship. He’s been close numerous times before, most painfully in 2010 when he fell runner-up to eventual title winner Jimmie Johnson, Johnson’s fifth of seven total. Hamlin’s Bristol win officially marked him the winningest Cup driver of all time without a championship, breaking a short-lived tie with legend and NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson.

RELATED: Full list of NASCAR’s all-time winners

“For me, I feel very blessed and honored to have the amount of wins that we’ve had in this era of NASCAR racing,” Hamlin said. “I’ve been blessed to be with (team owner) Joe Gibbs, honestly. I didn’t have to go with an up-and-coming team; I went straight to Cup in a race-winning car. Wasn’t race winning when I got in it, but the team was, right? I never really had to cut my teeth for years with a lesser organization. That’s carried me.”

And while he has yet to hoist the Bill France Cup at season’s end, Hamlin has qualified for the Championship 4 in three of the last four years and four total times since the elimination-style format was introduced in 2014.

“Certainly, nights like tonight are certainly pleasing after having a couple weeks of, like, ‘Darn, we should have got ’em,’ ” Hamlin said. “Keep knocking on the door, keep showing up, keep making the final four, eventually your number will be called. Hopefully this is the year for it to be called.”

Meanwhile, be careful around Hamlin, who may or may not have the Bristol sword with him next time you see him.

“Anybody talks (expletive),” he joked, “come bring it.”