‘I’m (expletive) cursed’: Denny Hamlin’s relentless title pursuit back in focus

The question has been asked before every NASCAR Cup Series season for nearly a decade: Is this finally the year Denny Hamlin wins a NASCAR Cup Series title?

For that stretch and 18 years running in total, the answer has been no. All the wins — 51 total … all the crown-jewel victories — three Daytona 500s, three Southern 500s, a Coca-Cola 600 … all the highlights.

But no championships.

His latest pursuit was captured and documented as part of the latest docuseries to hit Netflix, NASCAR: Full Speed. The five-episode documentary highlights Hamlin among numerous other championship contenders in the hunt for the sport’s ultimate glory. For Hamlin, that meant a candid look at what this journey means to him.

So sits Hamlin’s legacy entering the 2024 NASCAR season: a surefire Hall-of-Famer once his driving career is behind him, set to begin yet another chase for the Bill France Cup in hopes to finally check the ultimate box on an already outstanding resume.

MORE: Go ‘Full Speed’ with Netflix

Longtime NASCAR fans know Hamlin has been much closer to championship glory than he was a season ago when he and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team were ousted from title contention after the Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway.

Never was he better poised to taste that triumph than in 2010, a career-best eight-win campaign in just his fifth full-time season at one of the pinnacle periods of stock-car racing prowess. With just 36 laps remaining in the year’s penultimate event at Phoenix Raceway, Hamlin held a 63-point advantage over then-four-time champion Jimmie Johnson — in position to finally dethrone the unstoppable No. 48 team while thrusting Hamlin forever into NASCAR lore.

But five laps later, then-crew-chief Mike Ford informed Hamlin he was 12 laps short on fuel, a miscalculation that ultimately necessitated a late pit stop for Hamlin while Johnson was able to remain on the race track. Suddenly, Hamlin’s race-high 190 laps led didn’t matter. He finished 12th while Johnson finished fifth, cutting the deficit to just 15 points heading to the finale.

Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford speak in the garage ahead of the NASCAR Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Todd Warshaw | Getty Images for NASCAR

One week later, Hamlin started 37th at Homestead-Miami Speedway but was quickly charging through the field. A Lap 24 restart quickly flipped his day upside down, however: Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota bounced off another competitor, damaging the car’s right-front fender and sending Hamlin spinning through the grass. Ultimately, the Virginia native couldn’t recover, finishing 14th while Johnson placed second, winning an unprecedented fifth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. Hamlin was left a runner-up in the title standings, still his highest points finish to this day.

Despite the disappointment that afternoon, the overriding feeling was that Hamlin was due for his title soon. Thirteen years and two months later, that’s still the feeling: Denny’s due.

He came close again in 2019, starting on the pole position in the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and running second with 60 laps to go as green-flag pit stops began. As part of the stop, the crew applied a piece of tape to the nose of the car to aid the handling — but the tape proved too large and starved the engine of air, causing it to overheat and forcing Hamlin back to pit road. Another opportunity, another disappointment.

Denny Hamlin leans on a pit box in his garage with his head in his hand in this 2019 photo.
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

“He had so many great years where we were thinking, ‘Man, this is the year,’ ” Dale Earnhardt Jr., a NASCAR Hall of Famer and NBC Sports broadcaster, said in NASCAR: Full Speed. “It’s an unfortunate thing, right, to be good enough and not get it. I think Denny, understanding his age, understanding where he is in his life, realizes it’s now or never.”

Since NASCAR transitioned to an elimination-style playoff format in 2014 leaving four drivers to fight for the title in the season finale every season, Hamlin has advanced to the Championship 4 four times. Never has he finished better than third in that span.

“Do I want to win a championship? A thousand percent,” Hamlin said in the docuseries. “But it’s not going to define my career. My career is defined by how many trophies do I have right here in this house? Right now, there’s 50 of them.”

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Since that interview, he added another trophy thanks to his playoff win at Bristol Motor Speedway. He’s voiced how content he is racking up wins and is targeting 60 total victories — a figure that would tie him with Kevin Harvick, the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion, for 10th on the all-time wins list.

But the goal of any professional athlete is the pinnacle accomplishment — a title.

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“Denny wants that championship more than he wants oxygen,” ESPN’s Marty Smith said in the documentary.

The most recent setbacks came at Martinsville Speedway both in 2022 and 2023. In 2022, Ross Chastain’s ‘Hail Melon’ wall-ride around Turns 3 and 4 propelled him ahead of Hamlin by a mere four points in the standings, prohibiting Hamlin from advancing to the Championship 4. Last year, it was a combination of events that eliminated Hamlin. A mechanical failure sent him into the wall at Homestead before things eventually ran dry at the Round of 8 finale at Martinsville. Entering the short track 17 points short, Hamlin dominated at one of his home tracks but couldn’t beat Ryan Blaney, who won to advance. Hamlin missed the cut by eight points, and Blaney went on to win the title.

“I can’t draw any conclusions on why, year after year, things out of my control have happened that (have) taken us from in control to out of it,” Hamlin told Netflix after his 2023 elimination. “It’s just been bad luck, honestly. I am the black cat of death. I’m (expletive) cursed.”

MORE: See Hamlin’s career statistics | Denny Hamlin through the years

Nobody has won more races since the start of the 2019 season than Hamlin, who leads the league with 20 victories in that span over Kyle Larson (18), Chase Elliott (15), Harvick (15) and Martin Truex Jr. (15). Each of them has a championship … except for Hamlin.

Back in 2010, when Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick chased championship glory that sunny day at Homestead, ESPN pit reporter Vince Welch offered this ahead of the green flag:

“For these three championship contenders, the next few hours will feature moments that will define their careers, maybe shape their legacy. Some spend an entire lifetime chasing a championship, and some never satisfy their hunger to win another. This day, this race is what they live for. It will provide a joy — or a heartbreak — that they will never forget.”

Johnson ended his career with a record-tying seven championships. Harvick got his title glory in 2014.

Denny? Man, this is the year.