Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Is Denny Hamlin Really Better Than Some NASCAR Champions?

Denny Hamlin, with 51 career wins, is the winningest driver in NASCAR Cup Series history without a championship to go with it.

Hamlin is looking to change that, and he’s off to a strong start in the playoffs, winning at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night (Sept. 16) to clinch a spot in the next round with momentum on his side.

Not on Hamlin’s side were the Bristol fans, but Hamlin took it in stride.

“I beat their favorite driver … all of them,” Hamlin told NBC Sports as the boos rained down.

He seemed to be embracing the reaction.

See also
5 Points to Ponder: Title or Not, Denny Hamlin Is Making This Fun

Hamlin’s been down this road before. He’s entered the final race with the points lead and a similar attitude pre-playoffs and come away without the title. Hamlin isn’t lacking in confidence now though. He mentioned on The Teardown podcast that he thought he was better than some drivers who have won titles.

That’s brash. No matter the format, winning the title is a tremendous accomplishment. Winning one, let alone more than one, is something not many drivers will ever do.

But Hamlin isn’t wrong here.

Sports are driven by numbers, and NASCAR is no different. And Hamlin’s numbers, despite that gaping empty spot on the trophy shelf, are stellar.

How does Hamlin stack up against the best drivers in the modern era? Let’s take a closer look at how he stacks up with drivers who have won at least one championship since 1972. 

Wins, top-five finishes, top-10 finishes and career average finish are an OK starting point, but because of differing number of starts, turning them into percentages of a driver’s total starts becomes more accurate. That gives us five total overall numbers to compare: winning percentage, top-five percentage, top-10 percentage, average finish and titles.

A title becomes a tiebreaker of sorts; if two drivers are either very close across the board or split with obvious advantages in two categories, the title does become a de facto tiebreaker, because you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. 

Drivers are divided into three categories: drivers who have careers that are clearly statistically better than Hamlin’s to date, drivers whose careers are statistically worse than Hamlin’s and several that come down to intangibles.

Denny Hamlin’s numbers:
Starts:
 643
Wins: 
51 (7.9%)
Top-five finishes:
 219 (34%)
Top-10 finishes:
 335 (52%)
Career average finish: 
13.1
Championships:
 0

Statistically Better then Hamlin

Richard Petty
Starts: 1184
Wins:
 200 (16.8%)
Top-five finishes:
 555 (47%)
Top-10 finishes:
 712 (60.1%)
Career average finish:
 11.3
Championships: 

Notes: They call Petty the King for a reason. What’s really amazing is that Petty’s numbers dropped off fairly significantly in his final seven-eight years and he still has that 11.3 average finish. His percentages are absolutely phenomenal. Hamlin (and most others) can’t touch him in any category.

Dale Earnhardt
Starts: 
676
Wins: 
76 (11.2%)
Top-five finishes: 
281 (41.6%)
Top-10 finishes:
 428 (63.3%)
Career average finish: 
11.1
Championships: 
7
Notes: Earnhardt is actually a very good comparison because he and Hamlin are fairly close in number of starts. Earnhardt’s top-10 percentage and average finish are eye-popping. Earnhardt became more and more consistent as his career went on, and the result is a monster set of numbers.

Bobby Allison
Starts:
 718
Wins: 
84 (11.6%)
Top-five finishes:
 336 (46.7%)
Top-10 finishes:
 446 (62.1%)
Career average finish:
 11.5
Championships: 
1
Notes:
 Allison sweeps the board here as well. He may not have the titles some others do, but he was going to be running up front every week. His average finish is phenomenal.

Jeff Gordon
Starts: 
805
Wins:
 93 (11.5%)
Top-five finishes:
 325 (40.4%)
Top-10 finishes:
 477 (59.2%)
Career average finish:
 12.5
Championships:
 4
Notes: There’s a reason these drivers have won multiple titles. Particularly before 2004, consistency counted as much as wins when it came to winning championships. Gordon is spot on here.

Cale Yarborough
Starts:
 560
Wins:
 83 (14.8%)
Top-five finishes: 
255 (45.5%)
Top-10 finishes:
 319 (57%)
Career average finish: 
12.6
Championships:
 3
Notes:
 The first driver to win three straight titles in history. Yarborough beats Hamlin solidly across the board.

Kyle Busch
Starts:
 671
Wins: 
63 (9.3%)
Top-five finishes:
 244 (36.3%)
Top-10 finishes: 
370 (55.1%)
Career average finish:
 13.8
Championships: 
2
Notes: 
This might be the best straight-up comparison because Busch and Hamlin not only have a similar number of races, but they were teammates, and therefore in equal equipment, for most of their careers. Busch’s average finish is a tick lower than Hamlin’s, but overall Busch comes out on top.

See also
Up to Speed: Kyle Busch’s Tale of Three Seasons

Jimmie Johnson
Starts:
 689
Wins: 
83 (12%)
Top-five finishes:
 232 (33.6%)
Top-10 finishes: 
374 (54.2%)
Career average finish: 
13.2
Championships: 
7
Notes:
 If not for Johnson’s titles, these two would actually be fairly close everywhere except win percentage; they’re virtually tied for top-five percentage and average finish. Johnson is the only driver who started his career in the 2000s with a career win percentage of double digits though. And that time Hamlin went into the final race with the point lead? Johnson won that title. 

Close but They Edge Out Hamlin

Benny Parsons
Starts: 
526
Wins: 
21 (3.9%)
Top-five finishes:
 199 (37.8%)
Top-10 finishes:
 283 (54%)
Career average finish:
 14.5
Championships:
 1
Notes:
 Maybe the biggest surprise here. Hamlin has a clear edge on win percentage and a higher average, but Parsons wins the other two categories and has that title. He also didn’t have quite the level of equipment for his entire career that Hamlin has.

Kevin Harvick
Starts: 
819
Wins:
 60
Top-five finishes: 
251 (30.6%)
Top-10 finishes:
 442 (53.9%)
Career average finish: 
12.8
Championships:
 1
Notes:
 Harvick’s equipment was a step behind Hamlin’s for several years. Stats are very close, Harvick has the edge because of equipment.

Chase Elliott
Starts:
 279
Wins:
 18 (6.4%)
Top-five finishes:
 93 (33.3%)
Top-10 finishes: 
150 (55%)
Career average finish: 
13.0
Championships:
 1
Notes: 
Close across the board. Elliott has fewer starts but percentages outside of wins is strong and average finish is virtually the same.

Darrell Waltrip
Starts:
 809
Wins:
 84 (10.4%)
Top-five finishes: 
276 (34.1%)
Top-10 finishes:
 390 (48.2%)
Career average finish: 
15.1
Championships:
 3
Notes: 
Waltrip would be a clear winner had he not hung on for several years late in his career in badly inferior equipment. As it is, his titles and win percentage trump Hamlin’s edge in other categories.

Tony Stewart
Starts: 618
Wins:
 49 (7.9%)
Top-five finishes:
 187 (30.2%)
Top-10 finishes: 
308 (49.8%)
Career average finish: 
14.1
Championships:
 3
Notes: With equal win percentage, Stewart is close enough to Hamlin’s other numbers to edge him with three championships.

You Could Argue Either Way, but Probably Advantage: Hamlin

Martin Truex Jr.
Starts: 
650
Wins:
 34 (5.2%)
Top-five finishes:
 142 (21.8%)
Top-10 finishes: 
278 (43%)
Career average finish: 
15.1
Championships:
 1
Notes: 
The reason Hamlin doesn’t get a clear advantage here is that Truex didn’t have a stable, top-tier ride until probably 2017. In that period, he’s better, and in the same equipment. Overall, though, Hamlin comes out on top, at least at first glance.

Joey Logano
Starts:
 536
Wins:
 32 (5.9%)
Top-five finishes: 
158 (29.4%)
Top-10 finishes:
 271 (51%)
Career average finish: 
14.0
Championships: 
2
Notes: 
Logano could really go either way, but — for now — Hamlin has a slight edge across the board. Logano is in the prime of his career and has several years to add to his numbers, and he’s consistent, so he could change his side of the comparison.

Kyle Larson
Starts:
 324
Wins: 
22 (6.7%)
Top-five finishes:
 102 (31.5%)
Top-10 finishes: 
161 (49.6%)
Career average finish: 
14.2
Championships: 
1
Notes: 
Like Truex, equipment has played a role early in Larson’s career. Hamlin just tops him for now, but Larson is much younger and has time to turn the tables.

Brad Keselowski
Starts: 
514
Wins:
 35 (6.8%)
Top-five finishes: 
145 (28.2%)
Top-10 finishes:
 247 (48%)
Career average finish:
 13.2
Championships:
 1
Notes:
 Again, Hamlin’s advantage is fairly small. Keselowski has not quite had equal equipment the last two years but comes up just short in all categories.

Terry Labonte
Starts:
 890
Wins: 
22 (2.4%)
Top-five finishes: 
182 (20.4%)
Top-10 finishes: 
367 (41.2%)
Career average finish: 
16.6
Championships:
 2
Notes: 
Two things keep this one from being completely in Hamlin’s favor: Labonte’s two titles with inconsistent equipment between them with one coming by beating Jeff Gordon in his prime, and the years late in his career skewing his percentages a bit.

Hamlin’s not wrong here

Dale Jarrett
Starts: 668
Wins:
 32 (4.7%)
Top-five finishes:
 163 (24.4%)
Top-10 finishes: 
260 (38.9%)
Career average finish:
 17.2
Championships:
 1
Notes: A few years late in his career in sub-par cars didn’t help his numbers, but Hamlin still tops him in good equipment.

Alan Kulwicki
Starts: 
207
Wins:
 5 (2.4%)
Top-five finishes:
 38 (18.3%)
Top-10 finishes: 
75 (36.2%)
Career average finish: 
16.4
Championships: 
1
Notes: Kulwicki’s feat of winning a title as a single-car owner/driver is absolutely a massive accomplishment. But even taking into account his untimely death, the numbers aren’t there.

Bobby Labonte
Starts: 
729
Wins:
 21 (2.8%)
Top-five finishes: 
115 (15.7%)
Top-10 finishes:
 203 (27.8%)
Career average finish:
 19.6
Championships: 
1
Notes: Labonte toiled in underfunded equipment late in his career, and that didn’t help. But Hamlin has had a better career — note to Denny: don’t stick around too long, because that has hurt several of these drivers in the end.

Bill Elliott
Starts: 
828
Wins:
 44 (5.3%)
Top-five finishes:
 175 (21.1%)
Top-10 finishes:
 320 (38.6%)
Career average finish:
 16.4
Championships:
 1
Notes: Same song and dance about hanging around and inconsistent equipment, but Elliott’s numbers aren’t on Hamlin’s level. Except for the Most Popular Driver trophies.

Rusty Wallace
Starts: 
706
Wins:
 55
Top-five finishes: 
202 (28.6%)
Top-10 finishes:
 349 (49.4%)
Career average finish:
 14.5
Championships: 
1
Notes: Wallace isn’t very far behind Hamlin, but Hamlin takes every category.

Matt Kenseth
Starts: 
890
Wins:
 22 (2.4%)
Top-five finishes: 
182 (15.7%)
Top-10 finishes: 
203 (27.8%)
Career average finish: 
16.6
Championships:
 1
Notes: Kenseth was known for his solid finishes, so it’s a bit surprising that his percentages aren’t higher. Still, Hamlin is a clear winner here in similar equipment.

Kurt Busch
Starts: 
776
Wins:
 34 (4.4%)
Top-five finishes: 
161 (20.7%)
Top-10 finishes: 
339 (44%)
Career average finish:
 16.9
Championships:
 1
Notes: Inconsistency in equipment, in part due to Busch’s early struggles with his temper, hurt his overall stats. Hamlin has the edge though.

Hamlin’s right that he’s had a better career than some drivers with titles. If he retired tomorrow, he’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. 

But, at least for now, that missing championship looms large. If Hamlin can change that, he’d move even further up this list.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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11 Comments
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Dawg

Hamlin’s championship situation is comparable to an actor with numerous academy award nominations, but no victories.
They’re both obviously very good, but someone else is always just a little better.
Most of Hamlin’s final 4 appearances go off the rails due to self-imposed, or team, mistakes.
Being the king of pit road speeders doesn’t help. Bristol proved that the team could overcome a penalty, if it happens in the early or middle of a race. But a late one is a killer.
He’s proven he can wreck his way to victory, & he can wreck his way to the final 4, but I have 2 words for him, Matt Kenseth.
Obviously, he wants a Championship on his resume. But either way he’s HOF bound.

Bill B

Hamlin is a legend in his own mind.

DoninAjax

There is a lot of that prevalent in the garage now. He’s not the only one who has written their HOF speech.

Echo

Denny has been very consistent and good this year. I think he’s trying to psych himself up. But remember Denny, 4 drivers, one race to determine the champion. How much pressure will you put on yourself going into that last race. Jimmie got into your head for sure. I sure hope you lose it because of your own stupidity and not someone else’s.

DoninAjax

David Pearson Stats

Starts: 574
Wins: 105 (18.2%)
Top 5s: 301 (52.4%)
Top 10s: 366 (63.8%)
Championships: 3
Average Finish: 11.0
Poles 113 (19.7%)

Last edited 7 months ago by DoninAjax
DoninAjax

Junior Johnson wanted Alan Kulwicki to drive for him. When you consider who has driven for him that tells you all you need to know about Alan’s talent level. Junior wanted Ironhead to driver for him but he had DW. He told Richard Childress to quit driving and put him in the car but the car wasn’t good enough the first time. It worked out better the second time he drove for Childress.

Last edited 7 months ago by DoninAjax
Shayne

Denny ISN’T a champion. Until he is, better doesn’t mean squat.

Kevin in SoCal

“He mentioned on The Teardown podcast that he thought he was better than some drivers who have won titles.That’s brash.”

And that is why he’s hated. His attitude and arrogance. Not to mention hypocrisy in crashing other drivers but crying foul when he gets crashed.

Bill B

It’s pretty obvious that Frontstretch is putting out all these SPAMlin stories because so many of us have been vocal in our dislike of him and how can you turn away all those clicks. How many ways can you ask the same question: “Why don’t people like Denny Hamlin?” and “How much does a championship matter to a career?”. Giving the people what they want, I suppose.

Kevin in SoCal

Mark Martin is the best classy driver without a championship. I thought for sure he would stick with the Truck series at least, to get that championship.

DoninAjax

Click bait!! Like a certain driver who took the place of another certain driver.

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