11 ways Hamlin can win Cup crown
Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 car, is chasing his first championship in his 11th season.
USA TODAY Sports tagged along to Fort Bragg, N.C., where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was unveiling a Sport Clips paint scheme for the Bojangles’ Southern 500. We discovered 11 ways he could win the Sprint Cup title:
1. Be a better driver than
navigator: Hamlin was running late; he was supposed to be at Fort Bragg ’s Airborne and Special Operations Museum for an autograph session and Sport Clips military charity check presentation 10 minutes earlier.
The driver was in the passenger seat of a black SUV, operating the GPS on his phone. JGR account manager Brittany Edwards was driving, and she trusted Hamlin to get the carload of passengers from the airport to the museum. That was a mistake. As the SUV approached 100 N. Bragg Blvd., Hamlin looked up.
“This is our address,” he said. But aside from a liquor store and abandoned eatery, there wasn’t anything there. Edwards wasn’t happy. What happened? She told Hamlin to type in “100 Bragg Blvd.” He did, but the museum is at 100 S. Bragg Blvd.
“I had to choose between north and south, so I chose north,” he said with a shrug. “Denny, you’re fired,” Edwards said. “Wouldn’t be the first time,” Hamlin replied.
The SUV finally rolled up to the museum 30 minutes late, and Hamlin was greeted by a line of people patiently waiting for his autograph.
“Remember Rule No. 1: This was all your fault,” he said to Edwards. “I told you that was the wrong way.” 2. Continue to qualify well: Hamlin quizzed a reporter on the coverage his team has received for its qualifying this season. “How come there’s been no talk about our qualifying average?” he said. “We’re the best qualifying car in the last 30 years!”
Entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Hamlin’s average starting spot is 5.9, the best since Jeff Gordon’s 5.0 average in 1995. Hamlin hasn’t started worse than 12th and has missed the final round of qualifying once — at Atlanta Motor Speedway, when he qualified 13th but was moved up a spot when Kyle Busch failed postqualifying inspection.
3. Continue to show he can
win at any track: Hamlin checked two items off his racing bucket list this year. He won the Daytona 500 and finally won a road-course race in August at Watkins Glen International.
He used to say the Chase format benefited him because the tracks in the last 10 races stacked up well for his strengths. But now, he said, he can win anywhere.
When a reporter noted Hamlin had won on all four types of NASCAR tracks — superspeedways, short tracks, intermediates and road courses — he shook his head.
“No, there’s more than that,” he said, rattling off more specific descriptions such as speedway banked, intermediate flat and short banked. “Only four other drivers have done that: Kevin (Harvick), Kyle, Tony (Stewart) and Jimmie (Johnson).” 4. Drive like he’s racing for a new contract — which he is: Hamlin says his current agreement goes through next year, echoing what team owner Joe Gibbs said in August. Just like a baseball player whose stats matter more in a contract year, Hamlin knows he needs to keep racing at a high level.
“I’ve been there a very long time, and it’s ideally where I’d like to end my career,” he said. “Some of the biggest names in our sport have changed teams. But my vision is the same as JGR’s, I’m in a great situation where my sponsor (FedEx) is awesome, they’ve been great to me, and I feel like I’ve done a good job for them.”
5. Stay healthy: Hamlin is 35, but his back sometimes feels like it’s twice his age. Even before breaking his back in a 2013 crash at Auto Club Speedway, he had suffered through a bulging disk in 2012. He has had other back problems on and off since then; in August, Hamlin won the Watkins Glen race in spite of intense back spasms.
“I know my back well enough,” he said. “A lot of people have back issues, but they have nerve issues. I have zero nerve issues. It’s all muscular. That can be fixed.” 6. Don’t speed on pit road: According to NBC Sports, Hamlin led all drivers with eight pit road speeding penalties during the regular season. He can’t be doing that in the Chase, but that’s not news to him. Drivers don’t have speedometers, only lights on the dashboard that tell them when they’re close to the RPM limit.
“It’s a mistake, but it’s not a dumb mistake, if that makes sense,” Hamlin said of the times he has been caught. “I’ve been trying to push, push, push to see what I can get away with. It gives you that little bit of an edge if you can find it.”
7. Keep up with his team
mates: The JGR cars — which some people count as five, including alliance member Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing — have been the fastest all season. They combined to win 13 of the 26 regular-season races. (Hamlin won three.)
Non-Toyota fans have griped they have some sort of advantage. Hamlin argued it’s more about internal competition. “I’ve got three of the best drivers as teammates,” he said of Carl Edwards, Busch and Matt Kenseth. “We just have a very competitive teamwork thing going. Listen, none of us want to be last to each other. And then you throw Martin in there this year, and it’s been great. We’re constantly fighting to be faster and faster.”
Hamlin thinks one of them will win the championship, which would make it two in a row for Toyota after Busch won the manufacturer’s first title last year.
“Would I be surprised if we didn’t win?” he said. “Yeah, simply because of our odds. That’s five of probably the fastest seven or eight cars on any given week. So the odds are it’s a Gibbs car. But trust me, I don’t take anything for granted anymore.”
8. Don’t take anything for
granted: Last year, Hamlin showed up to the Round 2 elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway as the top-ranked driver who had not won a race. His odds to advance, he figured, were very good.
But the escape hatch on his car started popping open early in the race, and the team’s efforts to fix it with tape didn’t work. He ultimately got caught in a crash, finished 37th and got eliminated.
“I would have figured we were just going to ride around there and move on,” Hamlin said, sighing at the memory. “I can’t tell you how many weird mechanical things have happened during my career. You just never know.”
9. Stay balanced: Plenty of drivers eat, sleep and breathe racing. Hamlin has tried that, and it doesn’t work for him.
Remember the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2010, when he went in with the lead and coughed it up to Jimmie Johnson after letting the stress get to him? Hamlin has figured out he performs better when he’s having fun.
Some of his favorite passions include playing golf (he has organized a “tour” of friends called the Golf Guys Tour, which has its own social media account) and keeping up with his 3-year-old daughter, Taylor.
Taylor is wide open and constantly eager to interact with strangers, which is the opposite of her introvert dad. But he’s usually grinning at Taylor’s antics when she’s bouncing around.
10. Maintain pace: Hamlin rolls into the Chase clicking perfectly with first-year crew chief Mike Wheeler. After winning at Richmond International Raceway last week, Hamlin has a new career high with eight consecutive top-10 finishes.
The pair have come a long way since the summer, when Hamlin said they were struggling to find a setup that worked.
“I know this is what a rookie would say, but now that me and Wheels are going back to these tracks for a second time, we’re starting to get a database and fine-tune these setups,” he said. “The results speak for themselves. Over the last couple months, we’ve been pretty good.”
11. Win at Homestead: Hamlin probably can’t win the title if he doesn’t win the season finale. In the first two years of the current Chase format, the Cup champion won the race.
But he has fond feelings toward the track, even after what happened in 2010. Hamlin has two Homestead victories and a 10.7 average finish and started from the pole there last year.
“I have a lot of confidence going to Homestead, and thank God we won there in 2013 to keep the win-every-year streak alive,” he said. “I know I can do it again.”
Denny Hamlin has thrice finished in the top three in points.