Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: What If Denny Hamlin Left Joe Gibbs Racing in 2005?

This week on his new podcast Actions Detrimental, Denny Hamlin was asked by a fan if he had ever been offered rides elsewhere.

There were two offers, both before he was a NASCAR Cup Series star. Had Hamlin taken either of them, a huge chunk of NASCAR history would’ve been drastically different.

This season marks the 20th Hamlin has been under contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, first signing a developmental deal with the team back in 2004. That deal featured a handful of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series starts and a top 10 in his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut.

The following year, Hamlin took over JGR’s No. 20 in NXS, and honestly, he didn’t do a whole lot in that car. He posted one top five and 11 top 10s, finishing a distant fifth in points behind Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Reed Sorenson, who all moved up to Cup in 2006 with him.

Obviously, Hamlin ended up replacing Jason Leffler in the No. 11 JGR Cup car late in the 2005 season, and that’s when he showed star talent, posting three top 10s and a pole. Hamlin’s been in that car ever since. But he received two Cup offers before JGR put him in Cup that seemed oddly timed and would’ve negatively impacted Hamlin’s career, among a great many other things, had he accepted them.

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No. 15, Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Despite somewhat lackluster results, Hamlin revealed that early on in that 2005 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. approached him about driving the No. 15 at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., replacing Michael Waltrip. That timeline makes sense, as Waltrip did leave DEI at the end of that season.

But the No. 15 didn’t run full time in 2006, as NAPA Auto Parts left with Waltrip. Instead DEI’s No. 1 car became a full-time entry again with Truex driving. Paul Menard ended up racing the No. 15 on a part-time basis that year while competing full time in Xfinity.

Menard came with sponsorship from Menards. But Hamlin came with no money. So had he accepted that ride, would the team have been able to find sponsorship to compete? Would Hamlin have ever actually seen the racetrack in the No. 15? He probably would’ve ended up splitting a DEI ride with Mark Martin instead of Aric Almirola and Regan Smith .

Even if DEI put Hamlin in the No. 15 full time, that team went downhill fast right around that time. It won two races over the next three seasons before merging with Chip Ganassi Racing. So Hamlin’s numbers would’ve looked a lot like Truex’s early in his career.

And if Hamlin did survive the merger, he’d suffer more years of mediocrity at Ganassi. If he was still around after Trackhouse Racing bought the team, then last year would’ve been the first time he had truly fast racecars his entire Cup career.

Or maybe Hamlin goes to Michael Waltrip Racing instead of Truex after a year at Ganassi. Hamlin would’ve had a few good years, and 2012 might’ve produced a championship, but eventually he’d have been spungated out of that ride. Or maybe Spingate never happens and MWR is still around today?

But without the Xfinity success Truex had or the support of Bass Pro Shops, it’s hard to imagine Hamlin would’ve gotten as many opportunities as his current JGR teammate.

No. 88 Robert Yates Racing

This one really confused me. Hamlin said a few months after the DEI offer, Elliott Sadler, who drove the Yates No. 38 at the time, approached him about driving the team’s No. 88.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett was driving the No. 88 UPS Ford at the time. He also drove it the following year. It wasn’t until 2007 that Jarrett left the team. In fact, Sadler had already been gone for 14 races by the time Yates and Jarrett ran their last race together.

Jarrett had a contract through the 2006 season. So was Yates trying to get rid of Jarrett a year early? Was Jarrett trying to get out of the contract? It must have been some kind of dispute.

But let’s say Hamlin does accept an offer to drive the No. 88. Unless they can’t get out of their contract, he has no UPS. And he’s with yet another team that ceases to exist before the decade is over.

RYR probably doesn’t bring Ricky Rudd out of retirement in 2007 and probably doesn’t sign Travis Kvapil to drive the following year. Hamlin’s career probably ends up like Kvapil’s and David Gilliland‘s, driving for teams such as Front Row Motorsports and BK Racing. There’s no way he would still be in the sport.

As for Jarrett, maybe he and UPS end up in the DEI No. 15? That could’ve helped that team a lot. Or he betrays UPS for the No. 11 FedEx car?

Joe Gibbs Racing

Had Hamlin left JGR prior to getting the No. 11 Cup car (and had he even been able to contract-wise), JGR would not be the same team it is today. He was the one constant throughout the late 2010s.

If Hamlin leaves and doesn’t get the No. 11, then JJ Yeley probably gets in that car and Gibbs keeps Bobby Labonte in the No. 18 for a little while longer. Yeley didn’t work out, and the team probably would’ve lost FedEx as a result. Labonte had a big dip in performance in 2005 and probably wouldn’t have ever gotten back to that 2000 championship form.

But had the team re-signed Labonte, it probably wouldn’t been a three-year deal as contracts tend to be. Then the team would’ve missed out on getting Kyle Busch in the No. 18. Maybe he replaces Yeley in the No. 11, though, if FedEx and that team are still around by then. If not, then where does Busch go in 2008?

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If JGR bombs with Yeley, is mediocre with Labonte, misses out on Busch, loses Tony Stewart to Stewart-Haas Racing and promotes a not-ready-for-Cup Joey Logano, it’s hard to imagine it in a position to sign Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Which would’ve been great for what’s now RFK Racing, but bad for Joe Gibbs.

23XI Racing

I mentioned if Hamlin takes either of those other deals, he probably doesn’t put up a future Hall of Fame resume. If he doesn’t become a Cup star, then he never becomes friends with Michael Jordan. No Jordan, no 23XI Racing.

With no 23XI, Bubba Wallace might still be driving the No. 43 while being minority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports. That team probably doesn’t sell to Maury Gallagher with Wallace bringing in sponsor dollars.

Erik Jones ends up with a backmarker Cup team or an Xfinity or Truck team for a few years before disappearing. Tyler Reddick goes to whichever team it was that offered him more money than 23XI did. Trackhouse probably keeps Kurt Busch (or Hamlin in one of the timelines) and lets Ross Chastain walk when it buys Ganassi, thus another star never being born in Cup.

We could go down this rabbit hole forever with thousands of possibilities and probabilities sprung if Hamlin doesn’t stay loyal to Gibbs and thinks he ready for Cup right then and there. You get the point.

I feel like Clarence at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. “You see, Denny, you really had a wonderful career.”

About the author

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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