Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs have shared highs and lows together

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, talks to team owner Joe Gibbs in the garage area during practice for the 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Speedweeks at Daytona this year were an apt microcosm of Denny Hamlin’s career.

During practice for the Daytona 500, Hamlin decided to draft with a pack of cars—despite strict team orders not to do so.

The inevitable happened.

“Basically, we had a practice plan, and I felt like I needed to get in the pack and draft,” Hamlin said. “As soon as I made my way to the back of the pack, someone wrecked and I got in it. They were furious, to say the least, absolutely furious.

Team owner Joe Gibbs read Hamlin the riot act.

“He’s like, ‘You’re going to pay for that car,’” Hamlin said.

Hamlin found an antidote for his team owner’s wrath.

“Luckily I won the Daytona 500,” said Hamlin, who described Gibbs’ response as: ‘Don’t worry about that. Sorry I got so mad at you. It’s fine.’”

Reminded of the incident on Friday morning, Gibbs laughed.

“I was upset with what happened,” Gibbs said. “And then he turned around and won that next race, and I said, ‘OK, you can forget that. I don’t think I’ve ever penalized anybody for anything, but I threaten them every now and then.”

That Daytona 500 win, Hamlin’s second in the Great American Race, signaled the start of a remarkable turnaround for the 38-year-old Virginia driver.

Winless in 2018, Hamlin has visited Victory Lane six times this year. Last week at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, his win in the Bluegreen Vacations 500 wiped out a mistake of his own making at Texas—a solo spin off Turn 4—that looked to have ended Hamlin’s Playoff run.

Like the mistake and recovery at Daytona, the last two races in the Round of 8 are emblematic of the volatility of Hamlin’s career. Teaming with crew chief Chris Gabehart for the first time this season has helped smooth out some of the extremes.

“If you go through a whole year like he did last year and not win a race and you get everybody kind of… the rumors start: ‘Is this guy over the hill?’” Gibbs said. “I think Denny was fighting through that, saying that’s not the case. But I think the fact that Chris came on board, and I think Chris really helped, because Chris has a different outlook on things.

“And then I think Denny getting off to the start the way he did winning that Daytona 500, I think that we all know that people mature and grow up. Different things happen in their life. So I think Denny is… I think he’s in a part in his life where he says I get a second chance really in a lot of ways, and he’s making the most of it. And I think certainly Gabehart has really, really helped him with that.”

Gibbs has three drivers in the Championship 4—Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. along with Hamlin—but Hamlin is the only one without a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

That could change on Sunday, and that’s a pinnacle the driver of the No. 11 Toyota would be happy to ascend.

Greg Engle