The late great Dale Earnhardt once noted: “Cheer you, boo you, it doesn’t matter as long as they’re making noise.” And there can be no question Denny Hamlin is a driver who engenders noise. At Pocono Raceway a couple weeks back, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran certainly heard plenty of noise from the long grandstand as he celebrated what, in the end, turned out not to be race win number 49.
Longtime NASCAR reporter Marty Snider commented on the “fan feedback” a couple of times, ending the finish-line interview by asking what Hamlin’s reaction was to the boos. Hamlin’s face split into a wry grin as he replied: “I hear more cheers than boos.”
And whether you love him or hate him, you can’t deny Denny Hamlin is a driver who makes fans sit up and take notice. In fact, I’d argue he’s the most interesting man in NASCAR.
This past Sunday (July 31), Hamlin notched a big career milestone with Cup start number 600, a streak that runs all the way back to Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. For the record, Hamlin finished 32nd that day in a field of 43, with the race itself won by the irrepressible Mark Martin. Hamlin would go on to notch one seventh-place and two eighth-place finishes in the next six races – enough to vault him into a full-time top echelon ride he still shows no signs of relinquishing the better part of two decades later.
On the numbers alone, Hamlin’s driving resume is stellar – a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. Forty-eight (49*?) wins, with victories on every type of racetrack; good for 17th on the all-time list, including three wins in the Great American Race (2016, 2019, 2020), another three in the Southern 500 (2010, 2017, 2021) and just this year, a long-awaited Coke 600 victory. Hamlin has 36 poles, 201 top fives, 310 top 10s and has paced the field for a tick over 13,000 laps.
Now as any good Hamlin hater will gleefully remind you — vociferously on that bastion of respect and kindness that is Twitter — he still has a big fat goose egg in the championship column. Hamlin has gone into the final race of the season six times with a shot at the big prize (his rookie year of 2006, 2010, 2014, 2019, 2020 and 2021) but the title has remained elusive. And you can pretty much guarantee any serious fan of NASCAR has an opinion, one way or the other, on this particular topic.
And while I’m on the subject of opinions, Hamlin certainly has plenty of those. Take a scroll through his Twitter feed if you’re in any doubt here and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Some (those haters again) might call it outspoken but be it on social media, in person or via an interview, Hamlin always has a point of view and often it’s a thought provoking and unique one. A typical athlete spouting banal platitudes and non-statements he is certainly not.
And he’s aware he’s not always right (none of us are for that matter.) As he noted in a Sports Business Journal article in late May: “The things we did 15-20 years ago are not the things you have to do now. I’m not saying I’m always right. Sometimes in retrospect months or years later I’m like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if that was completely right.’ But at the same time, I’m passionate about it. I really want this sport to take off.”
And again, regardless of your opinion, only the most blinkered of haters could deny Hamlin wants, passionately, for NASCAR to be as successful as possible and that the sport is better for his ilk driving it forward on and off the racetrack.
Title or not, Hamlin’s lasting legacy may just turn out to be as a team owner. Let’s not forget either, that Hamlin brought in Michael freaking Jordan to the sport. He didn’t partner up with some vest-wearing tech bro douche or some smarmy self-made billionaire with a stack full of PowerPoint slides about ROI and sponsorship KPIs. Nope, Hamlin partnered with one of (if not the) greatest sports personalities of all time, a name known the world over, not just America.
And in doing so, brought to the sport the first principal Black owner of a NASCAR team in half a century.
Now the cold-hard truth is that teams come and go in NASCAR (some quicker than others) and no one can say whether or not 23XI Racing makes it long term, but with Hamlin, Jordan and the management team in place not to mention veteran day-to-day leadership from President Steve Lauletta on the business side and Kurt Busch on the driving one, there’s more than enough reasons to believe. Although, as always in NASCAR, the answers will be found on the track in the coming months and years.
Future Hall of Fame driver, veteran garage voice, team owner, change agent, Ross Chastain’s bestie (OK, maybe not that one), social media provocateur and most importantly father, Denny Hamlin wears many caps beyond just the purple and white FedEx one he sports on a race weekend. And while for some fans Hamlin might not be their particular cup of tea, it is hard to argue against the fact that he is one of the most influential and interesting characters in the sport today.
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