Denny Hamlin once again fell short of the Championship 4 at Martinsville Speedway. This came despite, for the second year in a row, leading the most laps in the event and finishing in the top-5. It wasn’t a “Hail Melon” that did him in this time, rather, it was a mechanical failure at Homestead that was the scapegoat.
Time is ticking on Denny Hamlin’s career. The question is, will Hamlin ever lift the big trophy at season’s end?
How Many More Good Years Does Denny Hamlin Have Left?
There is no more impossible question to answer than this, but, it is the most important question to answer. Joe Gibbs Racing will still be Joe Gibbs Racing for years to come, and Denny Hamlin will be there for at least a couple more years. He will have another opportunity to chase a Championship, but, how long will his skills allow him to do that?
Denny Hamlin is 42 years old, and he will be 43 when next season rolls around. He will be the second oldest driver on the grid aside from Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin’s teammate. Now, the good news for Hamlin is that he keeps himself in good shape.
There are examples of NASCAR drivers who keep themselves in shape and are able to compete for wins and Championships into their 50s. Mark Martin and Harry Gant are two shining examples, and Dale Earnhardt finished second in points at age 49 in 2000 before his tragic death. If anyone can race well into their 50s, Hamlin is the guy to do it.
At that rate, Hamlin may have seven or eight more years left before he starts seeing his skills wane, but, it is not always that simple. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick started seeing performance dips around their mid-40s. It’s too early to tell when Hamlin will deal with that, but it will come at some point if Hamlin does not retire beforehand.
The Unpredictable Championship Format
Aside from driver skill eroding, this is the most likely thing to keep Hamlin from winning a Championship. The current Playoff format is the most unpredictable that the Cup Series has ever seen. It’s about showing up at the right time of the year and winning races.
Denny Hamlin has been on the wrong end of this format in recent years, especially the last two. In 2022 he led 203 laps and finished fifth at Martinsville, but he was done in by the “Hail Melon”. This year, it was a mechanical failure at Homestead that kept him out of the Championship 4. In 2019, his pit crew made a mistake and put a giant piece of tape over the grill opening, which cost him an extra pit stop in the final stage.
Until Hamlin can put an entire postseason together, he will not win a Championship. If he makes the Championship 4, he fails to capitalize, otherwise, something else happens in the earlier rounds that keeps him from getting into that final race.
Denny Hamlin is a very competitive driver, and he will race as long as he feels he can compete and win races. 23XI Racing poses an interesting conundrum for Hamlin as time goes on and the scope of the company grows. Some may think that this could cause a distraction to Hamlin, but, it’s tough to say that is definitively true.
As a matter of fact, plenty of owner drivers have gone on to have success in the Cup Series while owning a race team. Tony Stewart is the best current example as he won a Championship in 2011 while being an owner-driver. Dale Earnhardt drove for Richard Childress Racing while also owning Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, and he finished second in points in 2000.
There are examples of owner-drivers panning out and doing good things behind the wheel while being an owner. Hamlin knows he can do it, and he has seen the examples to show that he can do it. His performance has not taken a dip so far, so, it is tough to say that 23XI Racing is holding him back from winning a Championship.
Overall, Denny Hamlin still has a chance to win a Championship as long as he is still driving. However, time is also ticking, and there is no guarantee how long he will have to win that Championship.