This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series will take the green flag for its season finale at Phoenix Raceway, which will decide a champion among the four remaining eligible drivers.
For the second straight season, Denny Hamlin will not be one of those four.
After declaring 2023 to be his year following his win at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hamlin found yet another way to miss out on capturing his first championship after his steering broke at Homestead-Miami Speedway and he slammed the outside wall, knocking him 17 points below the cutline.
He battled hard at Martinsville Speedway, but William Byron managed to do just enough on his end to bar Hamlin from the opportunity to compete for a championship.
Add that to the laundry list of championships Hamlin has missed out on for seemingly once-in-a-blue-moon reasons.
Ross Chastain‘s Hail Melon in 2022 that left him out of the Championship 4. A third-place finish in 2020 after being the overwhelming favorite following Kevin Harvick’s elimination. The gigantic piece of tape in the 2019 finale that forced him to pit to remove it, removing him from championship contention.
And of course, the one that probably still hurts the most: the 2010 season when he dominated with eight wins, only to suffer a late collapse in the final races of the playoffs that cost him the championship to Jimmie Johnson.
Year after year, the pressure gets to Hamlin and co. one way or another.
Hamlin was already in the conversation with Mark Martin as one of, if not the greatest driver to not win a championship, and his elimination at Martinsville only further cemented that argument. 2023 was yet again another promising year for the No. 11 team before it all went south at Homestead. And now, the team will prepare for another run in 2024.
But how much time does Hamlin realistically have left?
He will be 43 years old when the green flag flies for the 2024 Daytona 500 in February. While age is not indicative of performance, it is indicative of the window of opportunity to realistically compete for a championship.
It’s highly likely that Hamlin will continue to win races for as long as he continues racing for Joe Gibbs Racing (he could even be more like Martin and win in his 50s), but the odds of winning a championship are slowly getting thinner. In previous years, even former champions have fallen out of realistic contention for Cup Series titles despite still contending for wins.
Since Harvick’s dominant 2020 season, he’s only gained two more wins, which came back-to-back in 2022. Jeff Gordon only nabbed one win in his final season, as did Tony Stewart, whose performance considerably dropped off after winning his 2011 championship. Johnson only won three races after his seventh and final championship in 2016, all in 2017, then struggled from 2018-2020.
For Matt Kenseth, 2013 was his last realistic shot at the championship. Despite gathering eight more wins following his impressive 2013, including a five-win season in 2015, he never made the Championship 4. In 2017, his final year of full-time competition, it took until the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix to nab a win.
While previous history says Hamlin can continue to rack up wins, a championship is less than guaranteed, let alone a berth to the title race.
But Hamlin could easily prove that to be nonsense. Martin and Harry Gant both won races and competed for championships in their 50s, and Hamlin could very well be no different. With his support system at both JGR and 23XI Racing, he could be set to make another run at it in 2024 or 2025.
Not to mention Hamlin has proven that you can’t doubt him even when he finds trouble. After a lackluster 2013 and 2014 (mainly due to a back injury), Hamlin won a combined seven times from 2015-2017, including the Daytona 500 in 2016. Then Hamlin went winless in 2018. In those six seasons, aside from an impressive third-place run in 2014, Hamlin never finished higher than sixth in the standings.
It looked like 2010 would be the one season that got away from him, and he was on a downward track. It looked like he’d never have it that good again.
Then he started winning. A lot.
Since 2019, Hamlin has won 14 times (that number would be 15 if he wasn’t disqualified from the win at Pocono Raceway last season) and hasn’t finished lower than fifth in the final standings.
Hamlin hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down with age, but after 2023 seemed to be the year, one has to wonder how much confidence the team may have lost entering 2024.
Time is running out for Hamlin and the No. 11 team. He and the team both know it. Plus, with team ownership on the horizon after retirement, 2023 may have been his last shot at glory.
But only time will tell.
About the author
Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. He is an editor and co-authors Only Yesterday (Wednesdays) and Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer and dabbles in SRX coverage too. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is currently pursuing a master's degree. He is a theatre actor and fight choreographer-in-training in his free time. He's a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.
You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.
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