Denny Hamlin is one of the elder statesmen of the NASCAR Cup Series, and he's damned sure not going to let racing's political correctness dictate anything he does.
That was evident at Kansas Speedway on Sunday afternoon, when he flirted with taking the lead away from Kyle Larson, then got caught in lap traffic for a second like we get caught in rush-hour traffic for an hour — and then he forced his way to the front when it mattered most and nudged Kyle Larson. Larson's car ended up hugging the protective barrier like Charmin, while Hamlin captured his first victory in nearly a calendar year (May 29, 2022 in Charlotte) and locked himself into the NASCAR postseason.
He got booed, but he couldn't get that smile off his face after nailing down his 49th career win — locking him into the Top 15 all-time wins list, tied with Tony Stewart. Hamlin already is a NASCAR Hall of Fame lock, but the half driver/half team owner wasn't going to let Sunday be one of what-ifs. One might have thought Larson may have hauled off and hit Hamlin afterwards, or ripped him when the cameras were on, but he mostly just chalked it up to two hungry drivers.
Hungry is an understatement, actually.
A race win is a race win, but it's the bigger picture that intrigues me about this key win, Hamlin's fourth at Kansas (most by any driver in the track's nearly quarter of a century life).
Of the Top 15 NASCAR Cup Series winners of all time, only Junior Johnson and Hamlin have never won a season championship. In fact, if you expand it to the top 30, you can only add three more names to that list nobody wants to be on: Mark Martin, Fireball Roberts, and Carl Edwards also never won season titles.
Something tells me Hamlin is going to finally bust the ceiling on this curse. He won eight races and finished as the runner-up in 2010, when he was young (29 years old). But you know it's weighing on him — now that he's in his early 40s — that he doesn't have a couple of decades remaining in his career to climb that mountain so many of his equals have conquered. Hamlin's not worried about being Mr. Popular, or coming back to win another day. He's willing to piss people off to ensure he's in the NASCAR postseason, and he's willing to end a colleague's day. There's no more time to preserve friendships right now.
The truth is? Hamlin doesn't want to be on that list with Junior Johnson. The wins list? Of course he likes that. What he doesn't want to be known for — along with Johnson, Martin, Fireball, and Edwards — is not winning one of those season-ending trophies. He's downright sick of the close finishes. The four times he has finished third or better in a season, the eight times he's finished in the top five — he's sick and tired of it, and who would blame him?
It's his turn, and nobody's going to be polite and let him pass, so he's going to have to reach up and knock somebody out a few times to get it. Remember how ticked off Mark Martin was about never winning one? Hamlin has finished in the top 10 at races in more than half his career starts, and the top five in more than a third during his career. Those are phenomenal statistics. Junior Johnson never ran a full season in his 14-year racing career, so the fact he never finished higher in a season than sixth makes sense.
But Hamlin has run a complete schedule (36 races) in 15 seasons. He's not like Johnson, and if he doesn't come away with the season's trophy, he will go down as the most snake-bitten top-tier driver of all time.
Again ... he's sick and tired of not being a part of that club with the special rings.
I would say that what we saw today is going to become more the norm for Hamlin in 2023 than the exception. And you can damn sure expect that kind of effort from the Gibbs racer when it comes to the fall during the postseason — when it matters most.
To me? His first Cup championship season began in Kansas on Sunday when he nudged Larson on the final lap.
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