Denny Hamlin hopes to fashion NASCAR Cup title out of hectic life

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 04: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and WTA player Bethanie Mattek-Sands take a selfie during the 2021 NASCAR Championship 4 Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center on November 04, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Sean Gardner)

Out of chaos, Denny Hamlin hopes to be a NASCAR Cup Series champion at long last.

The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota freely acknowledges his life is a hectic scramble with no small share of controversy, and it’s no different with Sunday’s Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in the offing.

Hamlin has to balance family life with racing life, which includes not only competing for the series championship for owner Joe Gibbs but also his fledgling ownership with NBA superstar Michael Jordan of another Cup team, 23XI Racing.

“How do I get up every morning and take my kids to school at 7:30?,” Hamlin asked rhetorically during Championship 4 Media Day interviews Thursday at the Phoenix Convention Center. “How do I go to 23XI and work for a couple days in the middle of the week during a Playoff run?

“I live in chaos. My life is chaos, and I thrive under chaos… The more (crap) that is stirred up around me, the more I come at it.”

Controversy drives Hamlin. Though Alex Bowman wrecked Hamlin and went on to win last Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, it was Hamlin who was roundly booed by fans in the grandstands for the harsh nature of his post-race comments.

Hamlin called Bowman a “hack.” Bowman gleefully made T-shirts sporting the comment. To Hamlin, it was just another day in the life—and motivation to provide an “in-your-face” to his detractors.

“To me, it’s fuel,” Hamlin said. “I’ve got so much fuel in my tank right now. There’s a lot of motivation there. I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville. Starting in the back, going to the back again and driving all the way to the front and winning that race would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right?

“I feel like that momentum was taken from us, but again, the momentum in my head swings back around to now I’m ultra-motivated, because I love the feeling of just like proving people wrong.”

Statistically, Hamlin has been the fastest of the Championship 4 drivers on tracks that feature NASCAR’s 750-horsepower competition package. That’s a source of confidence this year.

More important, however, is Hamlin’s evolution as a driver and a person since 2010, when he held the championship lead entering the final race but lost the title to Jimmie Johnson.

“Certainly, I’m more comfortable (today),” Hamlin acknowledged. “That’s not even a question. I’m comfortable in who I am. Back in 2010, I didn’t have the big race wins that I’ve had. I certainly know that I’m a championship-caliber driver. There’s not a question in my mind.

“Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn’t always been good enough. But certainly, we’re as deserving as any. In 2010, I would have said, ‘Am I really good enough to do this?’ I had a ton of wins, and in 2010 I was battling Jimmie, and things out of my control took us from locking it up to losing.

“And then I got in my own head, and I messed up. I just wasn’t as comfortable as what I am now.”

Greg Engle