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Stat Sheet: Is This Really Denny Hamlin’s Best Season Ever?

Denny Hamlin has been in the NASCAR Cup Series so long all the starts sometimes blend together.

It’s not a joke; it’s true! Just listen to the driver himself after winning for the third time in the first 11 races this season on Sunday (April 28) at Dover Motor Speedway.

“I’ve had so many years, it’s hard for me,” Hamlin said when asked how 2024 stands out. “I’m sure ones have slipped past that you don’t pay attention to. I think we’ve led in every race this year, and not by accident or pit cycles. We legit led.

“Yeah, I would say this is the most competitive.”

That’s a casual answer turned into a major statement; after all, Hamlin’s in his 19th full-time season running Cup. At age 43, he’s…

  • Won three or more races eight times
  • Qualified for the postseason 17 times
  • Made four Championship 4 appearances
  • Finished as the 2010 Championship Runner-Up

That’s one heck of a track record. So to say right now, more than any time in history, is the most competitive of Hamlin’s career? That feels like we should take a closer look.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Denny Hamlin Does It Again On Dover Concrete

On paper, Hamlin’s had a few career-defining years. Let’s start with 2010. It was the season he won a career-best eight times, going mano-e-mano with Jimmie Johnson during the final 10 races for the championship. (Hamlin ultimately fell short after crashing in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway).

Then, there was 2021. Hamlin led the points for nearly the entire regular season, then won twice in the playoffs en route to the Championship 4. Hamlin scored a top-11 finish in the first eight races of that postseason, leading 578 laps and collecting a career-high 1,502 laps led overall.

Hamlin Through 11 Races

YearStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sLaps LedAvg. Finish
20101134434413.9
2021110887447.5
20241133453514.2

Recency bias, anyone?

Both 2010 and 2021 were stronger for Hamlin in different ways. His season three years ago, the last with the Gen-6, was one of the most consistent in modern history. Hamlin wound up just four laps short of completing every possible lap (just think about that for a second), posting 34 lead-lap results and a career-best average finish of 8.4.

2024 feels more reminiscent of 2010 for Hamlin, a boom-or-bust pattern where front-running speed didn’t always make it to the finish line. Hamlin has taken chances this year, like crashing hard while fighting for the lead late at Texas Motor Speedway. He also got wrecked at Talladega Superspeedway a week later, part of a Toyota draft gone wrong where that draft of a half-dozen Camrys could have wound up settling the race among themselves.

But if you’re arguing this year’s the best? You’d say NASCAR’s playoff system leaves the rest of the regular season a glorified test session the second you win yourself a race. Points during the regular season become less important than the playoff bonuses earned through stage and race victories. That leads to incentive for more boom-or-bust moments unless it’s a year like Hamlin’s in 2021, where he jumped out to an early lead in points and earned the inside track for the regular season championship bonus.

See also
Up to Speed: Is this the Real Noah Gragson?

Hamlin’s also accomplished something he never did in either of his best years: leading at least one lap in each of the first 11 races. He’s also accumulated the most playoff points (17) of any driver thus far, easily his best performance since the current multi-round format was introduced in 2014.

There’s also a wild card: Hamlin’s self-esteem.

As I wrote earlier today, at 43 this veteran seems more secure than ever with his place in the sport, on and off the track. Call it cockiness, call it confidence, it’s an emotional high that we’ve never seen from a driver who’s been a rollercoaster in the past at the first sign of trouble.

“I know I’ve got one of the best pit crews, one of the best teams, best engineers and crew chief,” Hamlin said. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t expect to win.”

And there’s no reason to think Hamlin’s win total will stop at three. We’ll see if it’s enough to finally get over the hump and win the championship he’s long coveted.

Here’s a couple of important trends to track after Dover…

4

Top-10 finishes for Noah Gragson this season in the No. 10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. Gragson, who was sixth at Dover, is now one short of what Aric Almirola (five) totaled up in his final full season driving this car in 2023. He’s also one short of matching the total number of top-10 finishes for the rest of SHR combined. (Chase Briscoe: 4; Josh Berry: 1; Ryan Preece: 0).

2

Top 10s this season for Daniel Hemric, ninth-place results scored the last two weeks at Talladega and Dover. It’s the first time in his Cup career Hemric has posted back-to-back top 10s, lowering his average finish to a career-best 22.0. Is that the spark Hemric needed to jumpstart a sleepy beginning to his Cup full-time return with Kaulig Racing?

31.2

Average finish over the last six races for Michael McDowell. Yikes. That slump includes four DNFs, two for wrecks, and not a single top-20 finish despite a pole position and 36 laps led at Talladega. All of a sudden, what began as a promising year for Front Row Motorsports has devolved into McDowell almost certainly needing a win to make the playoffs.

4

Of 16 playoff spots currently held by Ford drivers in what remains a winless season for the Blue Oval crowd in Cup. Here’s what’s crazy about that: reigning champion Ryan Blaney is the only driver feeling good about where he sits. Briscoe, Joey Logano, and Chris Buescher are sitting in the final three playoff spots and could easily be bumped out in favor of a rival Chevrolet or Toyota driver. Keep in mind there are 14 full-time Ford teams on the grid, meaning a whopping 10 drivers remain on the outside looking in.

2.5

Time (in hours) it took to go the final 2.5 miles of my trip to Dover on Sunday. It’s a level of traffic the track hasn’t seen in at least a decade, putting plenty of journalists and fans into a panicked run just to make the green flag.

The racing at Dover still needs improvement, both the Next Gen and aerodynamics limiting side-by-side competition on the one-mile oval. But a healthy crowd bodes well for a track that had already lost a race date; it’s much harder to lose the second now, especially when this track is one of the closest we have to top-10 markets like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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