Denny Hamlin has seen just about everything over the course of his Hall of Fame career. Ultimately, this time around, a power steering failure during a downshift at Homestead-Miami Speedway is what cost him a spot in this year‘s Championship 4 and a shot to win his first Cup title.
Hamlin entered the Championship 4 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway as a five-time Martinsville winner, and he was 17 points below Ryan Blaney for the final transfer spot. With Blaney‘s recent success at the track, the No. 11 team needed to be nearly perfect to have a chance to advance. Early on, it was looking good.
It took 48 laps for Hamlin to take the lead from polesitter Martin Truex Jr. for the first time. The No. 11 Toyota paced the field for the next 146 laps and won the opening stage. Meanwhile, Blaney charged to second in the opening stage, which meant Hamlin gained just one point.
Roles were reversed in the second stage, with Blaney setting the pace. However, William Byron, who entered the race 38 points ahead of Hamlin, was struggling mightily, not coming close to sniffing the top 10. Hamlin picked up nine additional stage points, giving him a total of 19 for the day.
As the race played out, it became clear that Hamlin needed to win. Byron‘s car was just good enough to maintain a spot in the top 20. At one point in the race, he dropped outside the top 25. But Rudy Fugle continuously made adjustments to the No. 24 car and had it as strong as it could be during the longest stretch of the race. Byron finished 13th.
Blaney made a late rally to pass Aric Almirola for the lead with 23 laps remaining. Hamlin was mired more than four seconds back and didn‘t have enough to close the gap. He finished third, eight points shy of advancing to his fifth Championship 4 appearance.
“I didn‘t need much more; [Blaney] was just a little better than what we were today,” Hamlin said. “That‘s the fact of it. But if you guaranteed me to have the second best car, I would have taken it and finished top three in all the stages and at the end of the race. It‘s a really good showing. Our fate was sealed when the power steering pump came off last week.”
When the race restarted with 168 laps remaining, Hamlin was the first car on four fresh tires. During the long stretch to the finish, Blaney caught the No. 11 car, passed it and then gapped Hamlin by north of four seconds.
“[Blaney] had the best car; we were the next in line,” Hamlin said. “I wouldn‘t do anything different. There‘s nothing I could have done through these playoffs to be any different. On a day where we had to have a phenomenal day, we did. It just wasn‘t quite good enough because we were in such a hole from last week.”
Hamlin was running third at Homestead when his power steering failed. Ironically, it was shortly after a hard battle with Blaney on a late restart. It dropped the No. 11 car to 30th in the finishing order, his second DNF of the postseason.
Aside from Hamlin‘s DNFs at Homestead and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, the No. 11 Toyota showed up with among the most speed on a weekly basis throughout the playoffs. Through the nine races, Hamlin has led 595 laps, three times leading more than 140 laps. He has five top-five finishes, along with missed opportunities at Darlington Raceway when the No. 11 pit crew left a wheel loose and at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when the car dropped late in the going.
Hamlin is pleased with the No. 11 team‘s 2023 showing, as he also finished runner-up in the regular season standings.
“We didn‘t fall short in performance,” Hamlin added. “We performed fine, but luck is a factor in this sport. When you take small sample sizes to crown champions, if the luck doesn‘t fall your way, you‘re going to get left out. I‘ve just been unlucky in the playoffs.
“We‘re doing great; I couldn‘t be with a better team.”
Hamlin alluded to personally making mistakes in the past. This year, he left everything he had in his tank out on the racetrack. He won‘t second-guess himself and ponder over what could have been.
With Hamlin‘s playoff win at Bristol Motor Speedway last month, he passed Junior Johnson to become the winningest driver of all time to never win a Cup Series championship. The 51-time winner has been outspoken over not letting a championship define his legacy. He‘s come to grasp that it might never happen. In his words, “championships are different now.”
“If you can be someone that wins 50, 60, 70 races, those are the people that show up each week,” Hamlin stated. “We gave our best effort and raced the format. It‘s tough when you have little hiccups like last week that will throw dirt on your whole season.”
With the final race of the season on the horizon, Hamlin reflected on his year, knowing it was a good one. He is tied with Championship 4 drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron for the most stage wins (eight), top five finishes (14) and his 18 top 10s trail only Byron (20) and Christopher Bell (19). His 984 laps led trails only Larson (1,127).
Plus, his three wins put a dent into his goal of 60 career wins.
“I really wanted to be at 53 by the end of this year,” he said. “Going back-to-back these last two weeks, I‘d get there. I think 52 is feasible. It‘s just a personal goal of mine because that‘s what I can control. I can‘t control, sometimes, if you have bad pit stops or the power steering doesn‘t fall off. I can control what I can and that‘s being a contender every single week. If you can win that many races, you‘re a contender every week. It‘s a personal goal that I would be happy leaving this sport with.”
Hamlin will return to Joe Gibbs Racing for his 19th full-time season in 2024.