Denny Hamlin and the challenges of NASCAR’s generational divide

Back in the day, fans of the great Richard Petty had no patience for the reckless driving and nonstop yapping of youngsters like Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. Years later, the fans of Earnhardt didn’t care for the disrespectful attitudes of kids like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. A decade or so after that, Stewart’s admirers had little patience for the look-at-me cockiness of newbies like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Busch and Hamlin are now the sport’s elders, and there’s a whole new generation of drivers catching them — and, in some cases, already passing them. Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney have won championships. William Byron, Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick are stacking wins. If the older generation is going to make a last run at a title, the time is now.

As the 2024 season dawns, it’s clear Hamlin is now NASCAR’s Main Character. A three-time Daytona 500 champion, he’s a certain future Hall of Famer and a budding race team mogul, in business with Michael Jordan. He even served as the centerpiece for NASCAR’s recent Netflix series “Full Speed” — that is, until he was eliminated from championship contention.

And there lies the key to Hamlin’s story in 2024, the same as every year: the quest to win that elusive first championship. He’s been close so many times — he’s finished in the top five in nine seasons, including each of the last five — but hasn’t closed the deal. His 51 career wins make him the winningest driver without a title in the sport’s history. And now, the next generation is starting to swipe titles right out from under him.

Perhaps it’s bad timing, perhaps it’s bad luck, perhaps it’s the current championship format. Earlier this week, Hamlin advocated for changing the current one-race winner-take-all format to a “more fair” three-race run for the title.

“I think there should be a championship round,” he said at NASCAR’s Daytona 500 Media Day. “Not tie it down to one race where it could fit a potential manufacturer, driver or team. Make them work at some different types of race tracks to crown a championship.” It’s a solid point, and not just because it would reward drivers with across-the-board excellence — i.e. Hamlin — rather than drivers who happen to hit on the perfect setup at the perfect point in the season.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 14: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2024 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin has 51 career Cup Series victories, including three Daytona 500s, but he's never won a championship. (James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Hamlin is a walking contradiction, the living embodiment of the branding hurdles that face every NASCAR driver in the 21st century. He’s an old-school traditionalist with millennial sensitivity. He talks trash to fans and opponents (good!) but he does so with a pre-scripted catch phrase (bad!). The catchphrase — “I just beat your favorite driver!” is pretty good (good!) but he’s already retired it (bad!). “Pick a lane” isn’t just a strong strategy for the high banks of Daytona, it’s solid reputational advice, too.

The challenge for the 43-year-old Hamlin — and for Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano, and other cocky-youngsters-turned-grizzled-elders — is that there’s a very thin line between arrogance and whining. Attitude can easily slip into complaining. Earnhardt and Stewart could stay on the high side of that line by sheer force of personality. It’s a whole lot tougher to get the sympathy of the crowd when you invite cameras in to film you in your multimillion-dollar home’s infinity pool.

“No one gave me anything,” Hamlin says in episode 1 of the Netflix series, as the camera pans over his vast wardrobe, his array of sneakers, his private jet. “I grew up with no means. I worked my way here. I have a big jet, a big house, nice [expletive] … and I [expletive]ing earned it.”

It’s a calculated risk, letting that side of himself show. Earnhardt, among others, had the exact same oil-rags-to-riches story — but he didn’t gloat about it. Then again, Earnhardt didn’t live in the TikTok era, where materialism trumps authenticity, every time. This is Hamlin’s challenge: staying relevant in this world while his roots are in a past one.

If Hamlin were to win on Sunday, he’d be tied with Cale Yarborough and behind only Richard Petty in career Daytona 500 victories. That’s ridiculously impressive company, and the fact that Hamlin is even in that conversation is a testament to his Daytona excellence and his sustained career brilliance.

This week, he sidestepped the question of whether championships or Daytona 500s mean more. (“The championship is decided in one race just like this is decided in one race … With the championship getting a smaller and smaller sample size, I view them very similarly.”) It’s the right mindset to express, at least out loud.

But “best never to win a title” is damning with faint praise. If Hamlin wants to rank among the Pettys, Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnsons and Gordons — the sport’s all-time icons — he needs that title. And he needs it now. Because the future isn’t just coming. It’s already here.