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2023 Top NASCAR Storylines: Denny Hamlin Emerges As NASCAR’s Undisputed Villain

If there is one wheelman in the whole NASCAR ecosphere that the average fan is guaranteed to have an opinion about, it’s Denny Hamlin.

And these days, that opinion might land somewhere squarely in the nexus between extremely negative and visceral hatred.

Most of the words that would they would use aren’t fit for publication here, but suffice to say they would not be positive words of love affirmation and respect. In fact, most assuredly, quite the opposite.

Put another way, the heel of NASCAR is unquestionably Hamlin. And it’s a role he seems to have embraced in 2023. Just take his Instagram post at the banquet for an example.

Read all of Frontstretch‘s content looking back on 2023 here

At the season finale in Phoenix Raceway (and at just about every other track on the circuit), the boos were so loud during driver introductions that I didn’t even need to look up from my camera to know he had just walked out onto the stage. At this point, there’s no question he’s a true pantomime villain and perhaps the most-hated driver in NASCAR, supplanting his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

On the surface, there’s a lot to like about Hamlin. He’s a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer with a stellar driving resume and 18 full seasons driving for the powerhouse JGR. He has notched 51 wins, good for 13th on the all-time list — three Daytona 500s, two Southern 500s, a Coca-Cola 600 and an All-Star Race win among them — and victories on all types of tracks.

But as every good hater will remind you in a nanosecond, he’s also a choker who still hasn’t won the championship his talent surely dictates he deserves.

Now, the choking reputation is somewhat overblown, outside of 2010 when no question he did in fact blow it. On the other five occasions he’s gone into the last race (2006, 2014, 2019, 2020 and 2021) with a shot at the title he simply didn’t have the car to win on the day — again, despite what the haters would tell you. You could be the second coming of Richard Petty, Mario Andretti and Juan Fangio, but if you don’t have the speed, you’re (barring luck) not getting it done.

See also
2023 Top NASCAR Storylines: Ryan Blaney Clinches Back-to-Back Titles for Team Penske

These days, in addition to co-owning 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, Hamlin runs a popular and aptly named podcast, “Actions Detrimental,” and never shy of an opinion or a quote. To that end, said NASCAR President Steve Phelps to The Athletic earlier this month, “I appreciate [Hamlin’s] personality. I appreciate his talent. I appreciate what he does for the sport as a driver and as an owner. I’m very grateful for him. I’m not suggesting having 100 Denny Hamlins would be good, but having more than we have, I would love that.”

Still, hate some fans do. Why is that?

Really, you can go back to the Chase Elliott incident in 2017 in the waning laps of the playoff race at Martinsville Speedway and there’s your story, chapter and verse. That’s the starting point.

You can’t touch the golden boy without earning the forever ire of 90% of the NASCAR fanbase — or a percentage in that region given the regularity he hoovers up Most Popular Driver awards.

The other incident, again at his home track of Martinsville, came with Alex Bowman in 2021.

While Hamlin may very have had a point with Bowman for the on-track incident, interfering with a winner’s celebration is not the way to do it.

That brings us to 2023. The year Hamlin emerged and, well, embraced his role as the heel.

Go back and watch the reaction of the Pocono Raceway crowd after his record seventh victory at the Tricky Triangle. Yes, it had come at the expense of the popular Kyle Larson with an aggressive late restart move to snag the lead, but the response from the fans was about as vociferous and negative a reaction as we’ve seen in NASCAR circles for a long, long while.

Larson wasn’t happy either, dooring Hamlin into the wall before the final restart. “I’ve been cost a lot of good finishes by him throughout my career and I know he says I race a certain way, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to apologize to him about anything,” Larson said post-race. “I’m not going to let it tarnish a friendship on track, but I am pissed. And I feel like I should be pissed.”

This was on the heels of a late-race incident at Kansas Speedway just a couple of months prior between the two that saw Larson aggrieved and Hamlin sail away to the race win.

The fans in the Pocono stands clearly shared Larson’s opinion, making Hamlin’s milestone 50th race victory perhaps the most unpopular win since Jeff Gordon eclipsed Dale Earnhardt’s Cup win total at Talladega Superspeedway in 2007 to a shower of beer cans and assorted debris.

Not that it bothered him. In his answer to NBC’s Marty Snider’s question on the cascade of boos, Hamlin grinned and said, “I love it.”

And in that moment, perhaps more than any other in 2023 or throughout his career (which has not exactly been without controversy), Hamlin became NASCAR’s undisputed villain.

Hamlin then went on to back it up when celebrating his playoff victory at Bristol Motor Speedway. On track speaking to the TV broadcast, he told the unhappy members of the crowd, “I beat your favorite driver — all of them,” with a backdrop of boos raining from the majority of those in attendance that night.

See also
2023 Top NASCAR Storylines: Chase Elliott Misses the Playoffs

Hate him all you like but that’s an instant classic line — no question. And it’s a line from a driver who is comfortable in who he is in a way that perhaps he wasn’t earlier in his career.

It really doesn’t seem to bother Hamlin at all. He’ll post pictures on his social channels of fans giving him the No. 11 double-bird salute, joking about it on his podcast as well. Let’s not forget he also used said podcast platform to admit he had taken revenge on Ross Chastain at the end of the Cup race in Phoenix Raceway in 2022 after a spate of incidents between the two drivers. It was an opinion that cost him 25 points and a $50,000 fine.

So while the general hate for Hamlin may well have been seeded six years prior at Martinsville, it’s hard to argue that 2023 was the year he truly became the sport’s No. 1 villain — all the while continuing to post top-level stats (three wins, 14 top fives and 19 top 10s). Whether it is deserved and/or justified is something fans will continue to debate throughout the offseason.

But as we head into the 2024 season, you can be sure at driver introductions for the Great American Race, the loudest negative reaction will be for Hamlin.

Not that he will care one bit.

About the author

Frontstretch.com

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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Bill B

He doesn’t like being the villain, no one does. What other choice does he have but to act like it doesn’t bother him?

FCK Denny Hamlin!!!!

Merry Christmas to everyone else.

wildcats2016

You said it well Bill B! I second your thoughts.

c d

a villain, I guess so, but an asshole for sure..

Bill B

In this case the definition of a villain is anyone the fans boo incessantly.
It’s sort of a catchall for asshole, douche bag, dickhead, prick, and everything in between.

Last edited 5 months ago by Bill B
Dawg

Harvick’s retirement will be regretted.

Hamlin’s will be celebrated.

That & he’s not too smart, otherwise how do you admit to, & even brag about wrecking Chastain on purpose on your blog.

Then contest it when NASCAR levies a fine & points loss against him?

If he was really proud of it, then take your lumps & move on, he can’t have it both ways.

Jeremy

I thought Kyle Busch was the villain? Denny is just the resident D-bag.

Shayne

I’ve never been a Denny fan. I had some respect for him as a driver, but Denny Hamlin is not a nice person. My disdain for him started a long time ago and has progressively gotten worse. A villain can be a likable character, Denny ain’t no villain. If the good Lord is willin’, Denny will never be a Cup champion either.

#FDH

Steven

Merry Xmas to Bill B. I enjoy your comments.

WJW Motorsports

To be a credible villain, it is first necessary to be taken seriously. Nobody takes Denny seriously. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all fellow posters and to the awesome folks at FS… Thank you for bringing this to us.

Carl D.

The question is how long before Lil’ Gibbs makes Hamlin the next Kyle Busch? Or maybe it will be Gragson. NASCAR has never had a shortage of villains, and even the nastiest one eventually became the Boogity-Boogity-Boogity man.

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