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Is Denny Hamlin the Villain NASCAR Needs?

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North Carolina Moonshine and Motorsports Trail

Denny Hamlin led 135 laps and took home the win at Bristol on Sunday, much to the chagrin of many in the crowd. Hamlin responded to the boos by simply saying, “I beat your favorite driver.” This came after he responded to boos in driver intros pre-race by saying, “You know.” Indeed, the boos did give away NASCAR’s newest villain, Denny Hamlin. The question is, is Denny Hamlin the villain NASCAR needs?

Why Sports Need Villains

Adversaries make everything more interesting. Whether it is the guy in the cubicle next to you at work trying to finish that project before you, or that driver who always seems to be knocking your driver out of the way in NASCAR. Every great story has a great villain.

North Carolina Moonshine and Motorsports Trail

The same rings true in sports. Fans not only like to have a driver to root for, but they often like to have someone to root against. It makes every sporting event more interesting, and some athletes build their entire brand around being the villain.

It’s just part of sports, and it can take the form of athletes or entire teams. NASCAR is no different.

Different drivers have worn the “Black hat” of the villain throughout their careers for a myriad of reasons. Darrell Waltrip became a villain early in his career because of his brash statements to the media. Jeff Gordon looked and talked nothing like the typical grizzled veteran NASCAR driver, but he won anyway, which rubbed many in the fan base the wrong way.

As much as his aggressive driving style created many fans, Dale Earnhardt also created many adversaries during his career. Kyle Busch created many enemies amongst the fan base early in his career due to his many outbursts, but he is a two-time Cup Series Champion with 63 wins. These villains made the sport more fun to watch for many, and Denny Hamlin is starting to fit that bill.

What Makes Denny Hamlin a Villain Amongst the Fanbase

Denny Hamlin did not start his career as a major villain figure amongst the fanbase. However, public opinion towards him has changed over time. Many things have contributed to that.

The moment when everything seemed to shift was the 2017 First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin dumped the most popular driver, Chase Elliott, heading into turn three as the two were fighting for a spot in the Championship 4, and Elliott was going for his first career win. A chorus of thunderous boos rained down on Hamlin after the race in his home state of Virginia.

Since then, Hamlin has gradually become more and more disliked by many in the fanbase thanks to both his outspoken nature, aggressiveness on track, and even some of his own hypocrisy. The most glaring incident came at Pocono in 2023 when Hamlin and Kyle Larson got together late in the race allowing Hamlin to take home the win.

However, Hamlin also mixes some of his more controversial moments together with just being a really good race car driver. He is a 51-time winner at NASCAR’s top level, and at Bristol last weekend, he just flat-out beat the field. He did not wreck anyone or put anyone in the wall, he flat-out beat them.

Not only that, but it seems that Hamlin is, at least publicly, embracing his new role in NASCAR. He has a podcast called “Actions Detrimental” in which he is called “NASCAR’s most polarizing figure.”

Every element that a villain should meet is met by Denny Hamlin. He is a great driver who ruffles more than a few feathers in track, and he embraces being a villain. Everything that a villain needs, Denny Hamlin seems to have.

Fans need something to root against in sports, and it seems that many have picked Hamlin as that guy to root against. It may not be what Hamlin had planned, nor is it what fans were expecting from him when he entered the sport in the 2000s. However, it is what it is, and NASCAR as a whole may be better for it.

North Carolina Moonshine and Motorsports Trail
North Carolina Moonshine and Motorsports Trail

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