Denny Hamlin says 'worse drivers' than him have won a NASCAR championship. Who does he mean?

DOVER, Del. — Denny Hamlin took his cut — he gripped the checkered flag like a Louisville Slugger and took a swing moments after he delivered on his called shot at Dover — and then lobbed a high, hard one at some of the NASCAR greats before him.

Yeah, maybe 36 drivers have won Cup championships.

Not all of them were as great as Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin is off to one of the best starts of his two-decade career, with three wins for Joe Gibbs Racing — plus a victory in the exhibition Clash at the Coliseum — over the first 11 races. Again, Hamlin is in the mix to win his first career Cup title. Again, Hamlin knows his season will be judged not on his start, but on his finish.

Can he ever get over the hump in the No. 11 Toyota and score NASCAR’s biggest prize, the pursuit of which has caused him all kinds of heartache through the years?

Sure, he can. But if he doesn’t win it all, Hamlin seems at peace with the knowledge that his career has hovered in the rarified air as one of the best in NASCAR history.

His 54th career win — one he predicted on his podcast — was just the latest reminder of his elite ability behind the wheel. Hamlin tied Lee Petty for 12th on the career wins list, and only Hall of Famers Kyle Busch and recently-retired Kevin Harvick are ahead of him.

Hamlin can’t knock ’em.

As for the “does a championship define greatness?” crowd, Hamlin told the haters to take a hike.

“I know that I’m a championship-caliber driver,” Hamlin said. “I’ll just say it. I think there’s been worse drivers to win a championship than me.”

Like who?

Stroll through the garage or flip through the history book and it’s easy to find championship drivers Hamlin would be foolish to trade careers with just for a title.

__ Brad Keselowski won the 2012 championship but has only three other top-five series finishes over that span and is winless (he has 35 overall) since 2021. Hamlin also has three Daytona 500 victories to none for Keselowski.

__ Matt Kenseth is as respected as any driver in recent NASCAR history and currently serves as a competition advisor for Legacy Motor Club. His one win in his 2003 championship season made him a scapegoat the following year when NASCAR upended the championship process and moved to a playoff-type format. Kenseth won 39 career races.

__ Hey, who doesn’t love Dale Jarrett? The popular NBC announcer failed to win a race in his first four seasons and had only two wins in his last four full seasons. He did win four of his 32 career races in his 1999 championship season.

__ The Labonte Brothers. Terry Labonte won 22 times over a whopping 890 career Cup starts. In an era where slow-and-steady won the championship race, Labonte won Cup titles in 1984 and 1996 — with a combined four wins. Bobby Labonte needed 729 races to win 21 times. He did win five times in 1999 and four times in 2000, when he won his only career Cup championship.

__ Would Hamlin trade careers with his JGR teammate and 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr.? What about 2022 champ Ryan Blaney? Surely not.

Consider, since Hamlin’s rookie season in 2006, he has only one winless year (2018) and posted 8, 7 and 6 win-seasons at JGR.

“I care about wins and winning every single week because in the end I absolutely would take 60-some wins and no championship over 20 and one,” Hamlin said. “It’s just not even close.”

The 43-year-old Hamlin and Junior Johnson are the only drivers in the 50-win Cup Club without a championship.

“This team definitely has all the makings of,” a championship season, Hamlin crew chief Chris Gabehart said. “Denny is doing a phenomenal job as a driver. The car, the new Toyota Camry, it’s really given us a lot to work with. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing is really pulling the rope and excited to win races.”

Hamlin and Christopher Bell have delivered four wins this season to JGR. William Byron has three wins and Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott each have one to give Hendrick Motorsports five checkered flags in 2024. The Ford teams — like Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing — have been flat this season which has already created some massive separation between the contenders and the rest of the field. The first 11 races could just be a preview for what’s ahead in a season that stretches into November.

“I think we have got off to a good start, Hendrick and us,” Gibbs said. “This is very competitive. I think that’s what we’ll see as we go forward.”

Hamlin had some fun after the race when he pointed toward the Dover scoring pylon with his 11 in the top spot and posted a photo on social media with the caption “ pylon works.” Hamlin trolled Talladega and Texas after the tracks removed the scoring pylons in moves that offended NASCAR traditionalists.

At last check, Phoenix Raceway, the site of the NASCAR championship race, still had a scoring pylon.

Winning that title sure would be nice. Ending the season with a few more wins to jolt him higher on the careers list just might be even better.

“It’s my personal goal, in my career I want to get to a number that puts me well inside that top 10 of race winners,” he said. “I think that will speak for itself and the resume.”


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