NASCAR Mailbox: Is Denny Hamlin Running Out of Championship Chances?

The way I see it is that Ross Chastain was doing whatever it takes to get into the championship race without wrecking anyone but himself in the process! Unbelievable, if I didn’t see it with my own eyes! That being said, does anyone else smell a new rule from NASCAR coming? – Bobby T, YouTube

Let’s just start with the inevitable: Ross Chastain‘s move at Martinsville Speedway was legendary. Personally, it was the greatest move I have seen in racing. While we have seen guys like Carl Edwards and Kyle Larson try to attempt it, it kind of surprises me that it took nearly 75 years to pull it off, yet it still seems unthinkable at the same time.

Despite how genius the move was, the question now arises if such a move should be penalized in the future. Drivers’ reactions following the race produced mixed reviews. Denny Hamlin gave Chastain credit for the move and said he tried something no one else thought of. Ryan Blaney and Chase Briscoe found the move cool, but expressed caution on whether it should be used in the future.

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Drivers React to Ross Chastain's Video Game Move To Make Championship 4

Then, we have Larson and Joey Logano. As mentioned above, Larson attempted a similar move one year ago to pass Hamlin for the win at Darlington Raceway.

You would think the defending champion would be in favor of such a move, right? Not so fast.

Larson expressed displeasure with the move to Frontstretch after the race.

“That was pretty embarrassing, honestly,” Larson said. “That’s not a good look for our sport.”

Logano admitted the move was spectacular but that the “box is open” for the field to do it.

Those two drivers mainly make up the main focus of the argument that there should be a penalty. I would say that’s egregious.

Chastain’s move put the sport in the mainstream spotlight once again. Only time will tell how long that will carry on, but it was a bright spot for a sport that has faced safety issues, officiating inconsistencies and driver/team frustrations over the past couple of months.

The move was even listed as SportsCenter’s number one play on the Top 10 plays for Sunday (Oct. 30). When was the last time you could remember a NASCAR highlight earning that spot, let alone any mention on that list? News networks and non-NASCAR fans are even talking about it, generally in a positive manner. That is what the sport wants, right?

The problem NASCAR has faced over the past couple of decades is not being able to keep a good thing going. This time, it’s the drivers who are threatening to ruin a potential breakthrough for the sport. While NASCAR drivers were wary of the move, drivers of other disciplines were praising it. Even Formula 1, which has seen a surge in American interest, had drivers calling it one of the best moves ever.

NASCAR has had plenty of moments in the past month that can be labeled embarrassing, and they received that exact reaction. This did not, nor should it be labeled “embarrassing.”

The thing is, these moves are not always an option. In fact, Martinsville is one of the only tracks where this could be pulled off due to the angles of the turns and speed of the cars. If quarterbacks can attempt a “Hail Mary” in football, why can’t drivers attempt the “Hail Melon” in the future?

I get that this is something that drivers shouldn’t do any time they are desperate, especially since it tears up equipment. But NASCAR has dealt this hand to the playoff drivers based on the playoff system, and Chastain played the right card.

So that brings us to the question of if it’ll be outlawed. We can’t say for certain that it won’t happen again in 2022, as Steve O’Donnell addressed this week.

Questions were also brought up if it could be labeled “racing detrimental to the event” or if a caution should have been called. Chastain’s car was out of the groove and against the wall at a good rate of speed, likely deterring NASCAR from throwing the yellow on the final lap. As for dangerous racing, I once again point to the fact that he was out of the racing line, plus he was not plowing through drivers.

If potential penalties weren’t brought up when Edwards tried it in 2008 or Larson’s move last year, why should NASCAR make a rule now for something that has only been accomplished once? And if they truly want to please the fans, this got them talking in a favorable way. Those are the people buying tickets and watching them on TV.

So will we see a penalty? Not likely in 2022, and overall, probably not. Now, if this happens multiple times in a short-term span, then NASCAR will very likely intervene.

Until then, why tear something apart when it is bringing eyes to the sport? The last thing we need are more rules being added for simply amazing moves. What Chastain did is the intent of these moves in racing: jaw-dropping and entertaining.

Are Denny Hamlin’s chances of a championship slim? He deserves a championship trophy before he retires. I say support him till he gets one. – Robert D., YouTube

Once again, Denny Hamlin falls victim to just a couple of mistakes that costed him a title. And that has defined Hamlin’s near-misses on that elusive title: execution.

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Did You Notice?: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin Crumble As Christopher Bell Rises At Joe Gibbs Racing

If you look at the first close call, it came back in 2010 when Hamlin nearly snapped Jimmie Johnson‘s title streak. A win at Texas Motor Speedway gave Hamlin a 33-point cushion over Johnson with two races to go.

At Phoenix Raceway, Hamlin led a race-high 190 laps. However, he was short on fuel and had to pit, relegating him to 12th. Entering the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin had a slight 15-point advantage over Johnson.

On lap 22, Hamlin went for a spin and suffered minor damage to his splitter. Later in the race, he made contact with Greg Biffle, knocking the toe out and ultimately ruining any chance at a title.

Nearly a decade later, the Chesterfield, Virginia, native found his next best chance in 2019. A year after going winless for the first time in his career, Hamlin had a resurgence by winning six races and qualifying for the Championship 4. Only helping matters was that he had momentum, winning the Round of 8 finale at Phoenix in dominating fashion.

Hamlin certainly had the speed to win the title, but once again, execution bit him. During a pit stop late in the race, the crew put too much tape on Hamlin’s grill, causing his No. 11 to overheat. Hamlin was forced to pit with 46 laps remaining, dashing his hopes for his first title yet again.

Then came 2020, when Hamlin qualified for the Championship 4 again. But after winning the second-most races of any driver that year with seven, Hamlin was mostly a non-factor compared to his title opponents, struggling to keep up on long runs.

Hamlin’s most recent near-miss came in 2021, when he once again made the championship race. Hamlin was more competitive in this one, with the No. 11 showing strong long-run speed. That played into his hands late in the race as he chased down teammate and title contender Martin Truex Jr. for the lead and championship. However, a caution flew with just over 20 laps remaining.

It all came down to the money stop, and Larson’s crew delivered with their fastest stop of the year, putting the No. 5 out front and sending Larson to his first title. Hamlin could only watch from third.

So what happened this go-around? Hamlin swept the stages and led a race-high 203 laps. But once again, execution on pit road was his kryptonite. After losing the lead on pit road with just over 160 laps remaining, Hamlin got one more shot when the caution flew with 34 laps to go. Unfortunately, the stop was even worse, as Hamlin lost multiple spots on pit road. Eventually, it all led to Chastain’s “Hail Melon” that solidified Hamlin’s downfall.

Whether it is because of driver tensions (see: Hamlin vs. Alex Bowman in 2021), driver mistakes or pit road execution, Hamlin has had no luck on his side when it seems he is a championship threat.

At 41 years old, the clock is beginning to run its course on Hamlin’s career. Add to the fact that the youth movement is beginning to take control (the average age of this year’s Championship 4 is 28.5), and the years of veteran dominance appear to be over.

Even more concerning is the fact that Hamlin had one of his worst statistical seasons in years. His 15.7 average finish is his worst since 2013. He had his fewest amount of top fives since 2018, and his 15 top 10s are the fewest he has had since 2013.

You can never count out a 48-time Cup race winner. But as Hamlin’s age grows and the years of poor execution mound, the chance of Hamlin holding the Bill France Cup looks more unlikely than anything else.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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kb

Never been a fan of Hamlin, or JGR. If he doesn’t, he is certainly a HOF’er. Cannot stand him, but you have to be honest about what he has done, success wise. To deny is stupid. Maybe Marky Mark. 2.0?

Carl D.

Same here. Not a fan. Still, he’s a talented driver and a threat to win on every oval track. He’s been good for JGR, good for FedEx, good for Toyota, and no one can question his drive or his commitment. Still, when it comes to winning a championship, I hope he truly is Mark Martin 2.0.

Get Real

Hamlin does not deserve a championship. His actions on and off the track reveal his lack of common sense and brains.

Jeremy

Hamlin, Bell, and Truex have 0 chance at a championship in 2023 and beyond. Baby Gibbs will be receiving all the best gear, team members, and the other 3 will be sabotaged so Baby Gibbs is the highest ranked/placing driver in the organization. Even if that means Baby Gibbs has to personally wreck them all himself. The writing is on the wall.

Charlie

Please understand I am not a fan of Hamlin, nor a non-fan. I have no opinion. He is talented and the folks at Fed Ex love him. He works for an, in my opinion, ultra renegade group of overgrown underachievers that lucked in to being the flag ship Toyota team after, remember, Michael Waltrip and Ty Norris’ escapades. The crew, demonstrates over and over again how they are a mad pack. Ty Gibbs is showing the stripes and will be a problem in the future until he gets punted a few times and Toyota gets tired of his representing this very culturally based Company. Still Hamlin wins. That is the best example I can site as to just how good he is. He drives for lunatics.
Hamlin is a first-ballot Hall of Fame driver. He also, when allowed to focus on it, be a great owner. Hopefully he will work with Jordan in helping the Hornets win as well.

wildcats2016

Never been a fan of Hamlin’s. It would not cause me to shed any tears if he doesn’t win a crapshoot trophy.

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