There are many drivers during the 75-year history of the NASCAR Cup Series who have decorated résumés but never hoisted a championship trophy.
Mark Martin, Junior Johnson, Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among those who left their mark on the sport, but never sealed the deal in terms of a championship.
As the NASCAR Playoff field dwindled from 16 drivers to 12, Denny Hamlin arguably has a stronger résumé than any of those.
With 51 victories and three Daytona 500 triumphs, Hamlin’s legacy is more than worthy of an entrance into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, despite the fact that a title has eluded the 42-year-old Hamlin, who is in the midst of his 19th season.
Ranking 13th on NASCAR’s all-time winners’ list, Hamlin is the winningest driver who has not won a championship.
To add another layer to his story, Hamlin has secured a spot in the Championship Four in four of the last five seasons. Though the outcome has remained unchanged.
This season, however, Hamlin may be writing a new chapter.
Fresh off a statement victory to cap off the Round of 16 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Hamlin prompted a shower of ‘boos’ from the crowd after stating “it’s our year.”
He silenced ‘The Last Great Colosseum’ with a swift jab.
“Hey, I beat your favorite driver,” Hamlin teased.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s confidence is oozing at the seams, and for good reason.
The first round of the playoffs saw Hamlin lead 382 laps across the three-race stretch, with finishes of second and first in the final two events.
“You have to love the game. I still love it, right? I very well could get knocked out next round or the next round, then we failed again. But I still love it,” Hamlin said.
“I love the process it takes to come to the race track and be fastest in practice, fastest in qualifying, win the race. It takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication.
“Usually at this point of probably driver’s careers, they start not loving it as much because you just got so much other stuff going on,” Hamlin continued. “But I’m a competitor. I love competing. At 42, I love this sport as much as I ever have, what it takes to find an edge.
“Used to be back in the day, Joe (Gibbs) would just build me a faster car than everyone else. Come up with a new trick chassis, smoke everyone. I didn’t have to put in a whole lot of work. You just kind of rely on the fast car.
“Now with everything common, the driver’s the No. 1 X factor in your performance week in, week out. That’s a fact,” Hamlin added. “It’s on my shoulders to find the edges, find the gray areas of where can I get better, where are my deficits. I enjoy that process.”
Hamlin has adjusted to the change within the sport from a competitor’s standpoint and found a way to capitalize on the small details required to elevate his skill set.
Now entering the Round of 12, the question now looms large — should the driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota be considered a championship favorite?
“I don’t think I’ve been any better. I don’t think our team has been any better,” Hamlin said. “At our best, I know that we’re good enough.”
Hamlin will begin the next round of the postseason third on the playoff grid, 21 points above the cutline.