CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Only 36 points separate the 16 drivers as NASCAR's playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway in what might be one of the closest fields in the history of this format.
After so many near-misses, is it finally Denny Hamlin's year?
“It’s always my year," Hamlin said with a wide grin Thursday.
Confidence is nice but it has yet to pay off for Hamlin, who can't shake the tag as the greatest NASCAR driver to never win a Cup Series title.
Oh, he's won the Daytona 500, three times in fact. He's tied for 13th on the career victory list with 50, only behind two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch and one-time Cup champion Kevin Harvick for most among active drivers. Hamlin has won the Coca-Cola 600, the Southern 500, the Bristol night race and every crown jewel on the NASCAR schedule. His Southern 500 win at Darlington in 2021 made Hamlin one of only four drivers — joining Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon — to win the Southern 500 and Daytona 500 three times each.
But Hamlin hasn't been able to close out a title despite at least five chances over 18 seasons. He's been to the winner-take-all finale four different times, and lost to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson pretty much head-to-head in the 2010 championship race.
A year ago, Ross Chastain's eye-popping video-game style move to crash into the wall and let the momentum of the impact carry him through the final lap at Martinsville eliminated Hamlin from the championship race. Chastain finished second to Cup champion Joey Logano the next week.
But in this year of parity — six drivers are in the playoff field who didn't make it last year — the margins are razor thin. William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports and Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, are tied for the points lead headed into the first of 10 playoff races. Four drivers will be eliminated after every third race, leading to a four-driver winner-take-all showdown at Phoenix on Nov. 5.
Bubba Wallace, who drives for Hamlin and Michael Jordan at 23XI Racing, is 16th in the standings but only 36 points behind the co-leaders. He hasn't scored a playoff point all year. Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn't scored a playoff point since his victory in the season-opening race.
Chase Elliott, the 2020 champion and NASCAR's most popular driver, failed to make the playoff field this year and former champions Harvick and Brad Keselowski head into the postseason winless so far.
Hamlin, meanwhile, has two wins and is third in the standings. He trails the leaders by just 11 points and sees no reason why 2023 isn't the year he finally claims a Cup title.
“I think that we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. Road courses, I’ve got speed now, and short tracks our cars — if we get to the final four, I’m not worried about being at a deficit,” Hamlin said. "I think the pit crew is better, they’re coming into its own. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. There’s no excuses for sure.”
Hamlin is of course juggling two very big off-track pieces that could ultimately be a distraction. He's in a contract year with Joe Gibbs, who last year let two-time champion Kyle Busch leave for Richard Childress Racing, and his Toyota contract with 23XI Racing also needs to be renewed. 23XI got both its cars into the playoffs with Wallace and Tyler Reddick, and, if Hamlin doesn't drive outright for 23XI next year, he has to be with a team that has the same manufacturer as the one he owns.
He was full of one-liners Thursday as he tried to avoid getting drawn into a discussion about his future.
“I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire," he said about everything he's juggling professionally.
But is he closer to completing a deal with JGR?
"I don’t have anything new to announce. I’m not trying to leak one way or another, it’s on to Darlington.”
Does he want to stay with Gibbs?
Has he started exploring options if he can't return to Gibbs?
“See that’s a play on words. That’s not nice. I have a race team. I always have options. If you’re just a driver, you are at the mercy of whoever will hire you. I will hire me.”
So could 23XI expand next season to give the boss a ride?
“I mean, if an apocalypse comes, yeah.”
Truex, the regular season champion, is the FanDuel favorite to win a second title and believes his toughest competition is his JGR teammates Hamlin and Christopher Bell. A year ago, Bell won two elimination races to advance all the way to the final.
“A lot can happen in the playoffs, which we have seen in the past, we just have to worry about ourselves and be consistent and try to execute and we will be fine,” Truex said. “The other guys — (Hamlin and Bell) are fast. It is always tough to race with your teammates, because you all have the same thing and you share everything during the week, so how to you find that extra little bit.”
Keselowski, who missed the playoffs last year in his first season as part-owner of rebranded RFK Racing, is back in the field alongside teammate Chris Buescher. He doesn't think the Ford drivers — and that includes reigning champ Logano, his Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney and retiring Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing — have the speed to contend for the title and Truex and picked Truex as his favorite.
Busch, meanwhile, would love to give RCR its seventh Cup title in his first season with the team. RCR won all six of its championships with the late Dale Earnhardt, and none since 1994. He has three wins this season and believes a shot at making the final four.
“I don’t care what team I’m at, I’m going to go try to win a championship,” Busch said. “But to have the history and the legacy of RCR and everything that they’ve done over the years with Earnhardt Sr., — yeah, it’s been a little quiet lately, but that would be nice to shake that up.”
But then there's Byron, the class of the Hendrick Motorsports field that includes 2021 champion Kyle Larson. He's been the winningest driver this season, and of his nine career victories, five are at tracks that are in the playoffs.
Byron has won at Darlington, Las Vegas, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Martinsville and Phoenix.
“It’s nice to know that a lot of the tracks line up well for us. It’s a comforting thing to know that," he said. "But I don’t want to think too far ahead and get too excited about Vegas or even Phoenix, because we’re not there yet. So we’ve got to get there first and hopefully this first round goes smooth and we don’t have too many headaches at night and can get through it.”
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