Denny Hamlin grades his season B+

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 22: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, enters his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway on September 22, 2023 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Perpetual NASCAR Cup Series championship favorite Denny Hamlin will not be among the four drivers competing for the 2023 title Sunday afternoon in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – a mechanical failure in the previous round essentially doomed his hopes for a title.

But the three-time Daytona 500 winning veteran and outspoken competitor arrived in Phoenix feeling at least “at peace” with his situation although obviously disappointed. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won three races and is ranked fifth in the title standings – tops among those that didn’t qualify for the big trophy run.

The 42-year-old 18-year series veteran won three races, had 14 top-five finishes and 18 top-10 runs along with four pole positions – the most he’s earned in a decade. Only one driver – Kyle Larson – has led more laps this season than Hamlin’s 984. But a parts failure resulting in a 30th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago ultimately put him in a deficit that proved too much to overcome.

Last season he missed out on the Championship 4 because of the “Hail Melon” final lap move by Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain that propelled Chastain into the final foursome.

“I think it was kind of a microcosm of my whole career honestly,” Hamlin said of missing out on a championship chance this season. “I feel like every year there’s been some sort of kink in the Playoffs that has either kept us from moving on or kept us from winning a championship.

“I wish we didn’t have mechanical failures, I wish it weren’t part of our sport, I wish we all had the same equipment, and it was durable and nothing ever broke and if you ran bad, it was your fault. I wish that’s the sport we had, but it’s not. I had a crazy 00.1 percent chance of what happened happening (at Homestead), and it did. I can only control what I can control but to me, I don’t lose any motivation behind it because I’m still going to try to win every week, but there is a luck factor behind it.

“All of our teams had the same issue, but there’s didn’t do what mine did and so it’s crummy. I wish there was a larger sample size for sure, but there’s not and I’ve just got to live with it.”

As for the season, Hamlin said he’d give his team a B-plus.

“Certainly, we could have more race wins. Three race wins, I’ll certainly take that, but it’s probably not up to our standards. .. it was stupid stuff that happens.

“If we get five-plus wins I put it at A-minus because we didn’t make the Final Four, but I feel very satisfied and content with the result of what we put on the race track and that’s why every single week we’re a contender you have to beat. We’re not hit or miss every now and then and disappear for 15 races and then all of a sudden come back. It was a steady season for us from beginning to end and I thought we put together a nice one.”