Denny Hamlin is easily the best current NASCAR driver who does not have a Championship. He turned 43 in the off-season, and that time is running short for him to collect that elusive crown. But, how much longer does he really have? We take a look at past NASCAR Champions and how late in their careers they won a Championship.
- For this article, we will analyze all first-time and final-time NASCAR Cup Series Champions since Jeff Gordon’s first Championship in 1995. The reason we chose this time frame is because, one, Gordon is credited with blazing the trail for young drivers to get into top equipment, and two, because before that the sport bears less and less resemblance to its current form.
- We will also look at the oldest Champions in NASCAR history. This is where the current age ceiling is for NASCAR drivers to win a Championship.
- Fans spend every year wondering, watching, and debating whether or not Hamlin will win a Championship. The conversation is turning to whether or not Hamlin ever will take home that big trophy at Phoenix.
The Oldest NASCAR Cup Series Champions
Before we dive into the modern trends of NASCAR Champions, we will take a look back at NASCAR Cup Series history. In total, only 3 drivers have won a Championship after their 43rd birthday: Lee Petty (1958 and 1959), Bobby Allison (1983), and Dale Earnhardt (1994). Dale Jarrett came close in 1999, but, he wrapped up the title on November 14th, 12 days before his 43rd birthday.
Bobby Allison takes the cake as the oldest NASCAR Cup Series Champion. He won it in 1983 just 2 weeks before his 46th birthday.
Can Hamlin win a Championship at this age? History says yes, but, it’s not exactly a common feat. Some drivers retire by the time they turn 43, so, racing at 43 is an accomplishment in and of itself. However, this has not happened since 1994, and we will take a look at how old and how deep into their career that NASCAR Champions have been crowned.
Statistics on Modern NASCAR Cup Series Champions
To see exactly how on or off track that Denny Hamlin is in terms of winning a Championship, we compiled data regarding all driver’s first and last Championships from 1995 onwards. We figured out their ages and how many seasons since their first full-time effort they competed up to that point. We also did not include the last Championship statistics of the drivers still competing full-time because they can still win another Championship.
With those ground rules, here is what we found.
We see here that it is very rare for a driver to win a Championship past 40 years old. It has only happened three times since 1995, and the average age of a driver winning their last Championship in the Cup Series is 35.89 years old. Hamlin is also entering his 19th season, and no driver has won a Championship later than their 15th season since 1995. Usually, by the time drivers are at the point Hamlin is, they start to decline.
By these statistics, Denny Hamlin should have won a Championship between roughly 2010 to 2017 in terms of age and seasons competed in. Despite being outside of this window, can he do it?
Some older drivers have come close within this time frame. Dale Earnhardt was 49 years old and finished 2nd in the 2000 standings, and Mark Martin was the runner-up at 50 years old. It’s uncommon, albeit not impossible for much older drivers to have success, and Denny Hamlin is in a position to do that.
He will be driving for top equipment at Joe Gibbs Racing. He nearly made the Championship 4 each of the last two seasons, and he has made 4 in his career.
Unfortunately, Hamlin has to do something very difficult, and he has plenty of youth to contend with him. Each of the last four new Cup Series Champions were 29 years old and younger. Since 2018, all except for 2 NASCAR Cup Series Champions (Kyle Busch in 2018 and Joey Logano in 2022) have been younger than 30.
Hamlin has many young and hungry drivers in their prime ready to win races and Championships. Think about Champions like Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott. Even non-Champions like Christopher Bell, William Byron, and Ross Chastain pose a major threat to Hamlin.
While many would like to think that Hamlin will forever be competitive, statistics show that he will fall off a cliff eventually. He’s outside of the normal window of a NASCAR Cup Series Champion, and no one knows what that fall-off will come.
The bottom line is that the clock is ticking, and Hamlin will have to do something no one has done in 3 decades to win a Championship. It’s by no means impossible, but, it’s far from likely.