CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Denny Hamlin enters the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs without a contract to drive next season, but that doesn‘t mean he doesn‘t have job security.
Though Hamlin expressed emphatically his desire to return to No. 11 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, he does have other options — namely the 23XI Racing team he owns with former NBA superstar Michael Jordan.
“I have a race team — I always have options,” Hamlin bantered on Thursday during the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Media Day at the Charlotte Convention Center. “If you‘re just a driver, you‘re at the mercy of whoever will hire you.
“I will hire me. And I should be the highest-paid driver in the deal.”
Hamlin‘s 23XI team currently fields cars for Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace, both of whom qualified for the Cup Series postseason, which starts Sunday with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App).
A third car at the organization might be a possibility in 2024 if Hamlin can‘t come to terms with JGR.
“If an apocalypse comes, yeah,” Hamlin quipped.
Apocalypse aside, the first order of business is the playoffs. Hamlin has been tantalizingly close to the title on several occasions. In 2010, under what was then the 10-race Chase format, he led the standings entering the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway but lost out to Jimmie Johnson‘s record fifth straight Cup title.
Since the introduction of the elimination playoff format in 2014, Hamlin has qualified for the Championship 4 Round four times, with a best finish of third in 2014 and 2021.
“I should have won in 2010,” Hamlin said. “I (screwed) that up pretty bad. Certainly, Jimmie got in my head there, and I just second-guessed what had made me successful the whole time.”
In 2021, Hamlin was chasing JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the lead late in the Championship 4 race at Phoenix.
“And the caution came out,” Hamlin recalled. “And (Kyle) Larson went from fourth to first on the pit stop. I would say that, in 2019, when we put the piece of tape on the car, I was running Kyle Busch down at the end.
“I was a couple seconds back from him — it was Homestead — but I hadn‘t even pushed yet. I was just waiting, waiting, waiting … and then all of a sudden we put the tape on the car, and we blow up.
“There‘s like a five-way tie (for closest call to the title).”