CREW CHIEF: Chris Gabehart
TEAM: Joe Gibbs Racing
POINTS: Third in NASCAR Cup Series
WINS: Two (Darlington II, Las Vegas II)
LAPS LED: 1,502
TOP 5s: 19
TOP 10s: 25
QUALIFIED FIRST: Five times (Homestead-Miami, Atlanta I, Talladega I and II, Charlotte Roval)
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Coming off a seven-win season in 2020, Denny Hamlin surprisingly went winless during this year’s regular season. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Hamlin held the Cup Series’ best average finish going into the playoffs, bolstered by 13 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes in the first 26 races.
Proverbial hammer finally broke proverbial rock in the playoff opener at Darlington, as Hamlin repelled a final attack from Kyle Larson to win the Southern 500 and advance to the Round of 12. When that round opened three weeks later at Las Vegas, Hamlin was victorious again and entered the Round of 8.
Finishes of 11th and fifth in the first two races of the Round of 8 put Hamlin in good position to clinch a Championship 4 berth the following week at Martinsville. There, Hamlin’s chance to win his way in was dashed by a bump-and-run from Alex Bowman in the final laps.
That relegated Hamlin to a 24th-place finish, and Hamlin promptly interrupted Bowman’s victory celebration before calling him a “hack” afterwards. Somewhat buried in the drama: Hamlin indeed clinched a Championship 4 berth with eight points to spare.
Hamlin also entered Cup team ownership as co-owner of 23XI Racing alongside NBA legend Michael Jordan. 23XI’s first season was not without struggle, but it also wasn’t without reward as driver Bubba Wallace scored the first Cup win for both himself and the team in October at Talladega.
Following Wallace’s triumph, Hamlin said it would “take a minute” for him to contemplate becoming a race-winning team owner. But he added: “This is just a huge morale boost, a huge confidence boost for Bubba … There’s a lot of positives that will come out of this that will linger for a very, very long time.”
WHAT WENT WRONG: With a third-place finish in the title finale at Phoenix, Hamlin again fell short of claiming his first Cup title. He lined up in second for the final restart with 24 laps to go, but leader Kyle Larson had a better launch and pulled away to the win and the championship.
However, compared to his appearance in the 2020 title race, Hamlin was much stronger on performance. With that in mind, you can argue that Hamlin had more painful near-misses in 2021.
The aforementioned run-in with Bowman could fall in that category. Same with the three in a row he had in the spring: Failing to pass Joey Logano in the Bristol dirt race, getting caught late by Martin Truex Jr. at Martinsville, and having Bowman steal a win from him at Richmond. Let’s not forget the Indianapolis road course as well, where an incident with Chase Briscoe also robbed him of a possible win.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2022: Legacy is not an issue for Hamlin. His 46 wins behind the wheel cements it and his move into team ownership expands it. However, one question remains: What will it take for him to finally win it all? In this current era, just making the Championship 4 is a massive accomplishment – and in 2022, Hamlin has a chance to get there for a fourth consecutive year. But will 2022, at long last, be his year?