Hamlin, 42, enters Sunday night’s playoff opening race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway seeded third among the 16 drivers.
While he and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team have earned just a pair of victories this year – at Kansas and Pocono – he has been consistently battling for wins throughout the season. Hamlin has three runner-up finishes and has led the fifth most laps in the series.
“I think the team has got better all-around speed than what it’s had in a while. I think the first year with Next Gen car, we knew we were good on big tracks, we weren’t good on short tracks and road courses were awful,” Hamlin said during Thursday’s Playoff Media Day in downtown Charlotte.
“I think we’ve shown we could win and shown speed at all tracks this year and that’s something we haven’t had – even though we’ve made it to the final four so many years – we still have more overall speed at all of the race tracks.
“Honestly, if you get to the final four, if you don’t have speed at Phoenix, it doesn’t matter, and I think we will.”
Always a contender, just never the champion
A series title is the only thing missing on Hamlin’s distinguished Cup resume. He has won 50 races and 40 poles but his best finish in the series standings is second in 2010.
Since the advent of NASCAR’s current playoff system in 2014, Hamlin has advanced to the Championship 4 – the last four drivers that have a chance to win the title – four times. He’s never come out better than third, whether the championship race was at Homestead, Fla., or Phoenix.
Hamlin hopes – as he always does – this year will be different.
“I think we’re stronger than we’ve been. If we get to the final four, I’m not worried about being at a deficit,” Hamlin said. “I think the pit crew is better. They’re coming into their own.
“All the pieces of the puzzle are there. There’s no excuses, for sure.”
There is certainly precedent for a driver earning his biggest accolades late in his career.
Richard Petty earned five of his record-tying seven Cup series titles after he turned 30 years old. All of Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles came after his 30th birthday. Six of the late Dale Earnhardt’s seven titles came in his 30s.
Most recently, Kevin Harvick won his Cup title in 2014 at age 38 and Martin Truex Jr. earned his first title in 2017 at age 37. Both drivers are in this year’s playoffs as well.
Race winner Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry
Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images
With everything in place Hamlin feels he needs to win a title, what is his approach as he enters each of the 10 playoff races this season?
“I know specific little areas where I need to get better that have cost me opportunities – late-race restarts, things like that – things that I can work on to get better,” he said. “Certainly, I look in the mirror as much as anyone.
“I have all the pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship. My teammates have won championships in past years. So, I need to do better. I think I’m more prepared now with more experience.
“I feel like, honestly, I’m as fast as I’ve ever been.”