Being labeled as the best driver to never win a NASCAR Cup Series championship comes with both positive and negative connotations. On one hand, any driver being considered for such a title has obviously won races and contended for titles. But on the other hand, the person carrying that moniker has no doubt, on at least a few occasions, finished seasons with the frustration of not having achieved the ultimate goal at the sport’s top level.
Among active drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series division today, the label of best driver to never win a championship is most often attached to the name of Denny Hamlin. The Chesterfield, VA racer who has competed over the course of his entire career for Joe Gibbs Racing has experienced close calls, particularly during the most recent two campaigns, but has never captured the elusive trophy.
Hamlin has has been one of the sport’s most prolific race winners throughout his time in NASCAR having scored a total of 44 Cup Series victories. That total ranks him 19th on the all-time wins list. He is just ahead of Mark Martin, another driver often mentioned in the best driver without a championship conversation.
Hamlin’s highest final ranking came in 2010 when he was the runner-up. He ended the 2006 and 2014 seasons third in the final standings.
The problem for Hamlin is that history tells us time is quickly running out if the 40-year-old driver is to ever accomplish the stated goal. Only a handful of NASCAR stars have won a championship after passing Hamlin’s current age and many of those winning efforts occurred when the sport used a much different system for determining its season-long winner. Seven-time champs Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jimmie Johnson captured one title each in their forties. Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte, Tony Stewart, and Joe Weatherly also won championships past the age of 40. Bobby Allison was the oldest Cup champ ever at the age of 45.
Granted, winning a championship is not the end all be all in terms of determining a racing driver’s legacy. Mark Martin likely does not feel as if his time in racing was wasted simply because he didn’t accomplish the feat. That said, however, championships do matter and any former driver would like to look in his trophy case at the end of his career and see that trophy.
To add to Hamlin’s need for expediency, the popular Jayski.com website reports that his contract with JGR is only believed to run through the 2021 season. And while it might seem that a driver with his credentials would be a virtual lock to be re-signed by his organization, recent trends have shown that teams have been looking to exchange high-priced veteran drivers for less expensive younger pilots.
One thing that is working in Hamlin’s favor is that he and crew chief Chris Gabehart are obviously clicking. The pairing have amassed 13 checkered flags over the past two seasons including the Daytona 500 in both 2019 and 2020. And more, the No. 11 team has made it into the Championship 4 final race in each of those season with both efforts resulting in a fourth place finish.
Also in the JGR driver’s favor is the fact that he is hitting his stride by winning seven races in 2020. That is just one shy of his season high tally of eight back in 2010.
A problem for any driver hoping to win a title is that no matter how good a season might have been, getting hot at the right time and finding a little bit of luck can weigh in more than season-long performance(just ask Kevin Harvick). The way NASCAR determines its champion essentially plays out like a television reality game show which may, in the minds of some, diminish the achievement.
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Whether it be the case that the NASCAR Playoffs behave like a game show or not, Hamlin has not done what has to be done to win a title during any season in his racing career. And history says that if he doesn’t do it very soon, he never will.
Denny Hamlin has reached the now or never time if he is to shed the label of best driver to never win a NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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