AVONDALE, Ariz. – If one of the best seasons of his Cup career ends without a trip to the championship round, Denny Hamlin says he’ll have peace and some good company.
“You adjust your expectations,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said Friday at ISM Raceway, two days ahead of the race that will determine if he will run for a title in the Nov. 17 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “No matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure. We, as Mark Martin would say, just didn’t score enough points. We had a great year, we won races, we led more laps than we have in a long time and more top fives than anybody in the series.
“It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not. I think you have to adjust to that. Because in a one-race, winner-take-all (format) or a three-race round – anything can happen, and it did for us.”
After crashing and finishing 28th at Texas Motor Speedway in the middle race of the Round of 8, Hamlin is 20 points behind Joey Logano for the fourth and final transfer spot to the championship round despite a career year.
The No. 11 Toyota driver has five victories (his most since 2012) and career bests in top fives (18) and average finish (9.7) in his first year with crew chief Chris Gabehart.
During his 14 seasons in Cup, the championship structure has been altered by stages, playoff points and points resets, which apparently provides some solace.
“I believe Brad (Keselowski) was talking how he values wins over championships because winning the race never has changed based on the championship format that has been changed so many different times,” Hamlin said. “We’ve seen, ‘Well, if the format was this, I’d have three championships.’ We all play by the same rules, we know what they are, and we know what the format is, but it doesn’t always work out for you.”
With 36 career victories in Cup and playoff appearances in every season except 2013 (when he missed four races with broken back), Hamlin is regarded as the best active driver without a championship.
The same tag long was applied to Martin, who was elected to the Hall of Fame three years ago as a five-time runner-up in the points standings with 40 Cup wins.
Hamlin, who turns 39 on Nov. 18, said he’d be OK with being known as the Mark Martin of his generation.
“I think Mark Martin said it best, ‘You can still be respected and still have a really successful career without winning a championship,’” Hamlin said. “I read that he thinks about now that he’s 60 years old, he looks back and thinks would a championship make any difference in my life right now? He says, ‘No, it wouldn’t.’
“I’m at that point. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what I’m capable of, I think my competitors know what I’m capable of and I appreciate all the love the media has given me over the last two, three weeks. It’s been incredible. Probably not all of it deserved, but I also think we have to give some love to the other competitors as well. Everyone is looking at is the 11 gonna win? Well, I think equally (Ryan Blaney) and (Kyle Larson).
“They all have an equal chance we have to give them the due respect as well. I’ll do the best I can and see what the outlook can be.”
The outlook seemed good Friday at the 1-mile oval for Hamlin, who was second in the first practice and had the fastest 10-lap average in the final session. He still will need to qualify well for Sunday’s race, which he labeled as “my Homestead right now. I’ve got to perform at a high level and have a fast car to compete.”
If he comes up short, Hamlin said it still has been a successful year on and off the track.
“I’ve grown this year, no doubt about it,” he said. “I’ve had major life changes this year. I’ve had to grow. I’ve had to change. It’s helped on-track things, to be honest.
“If the year is over after this weekend, I can’t wait to go back to the racetrack in 2020. It was so much fun racing this year and having a shot to win every single weekend. It was just a pleasure. Although I really want to win, it’s not as much for me as my team. They are so first class and have given me fast cars every week. That’s all I can ask for.”