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Provocateur, entertainer, future Hall of Famer: Denny Hamlin holds many titles but one

Provocateur, entertainer, future Hall of Famer: Denny Hamlin holds many titles but one

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ahead of the 2010 season finale, a race that would shape the narrative of both drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin stood in the back of a pickup truck together going around Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin entered as the points leader but an underdog for the championship. Johnson, going for a record-extending fifth consecutive NASCAR Cup title, had gained momentum in the title race the week before and was the favorite.

Johnson’s reign had worn on many fans, who longed to see anybody beat him. As Hamlin and Johnson passed by the frontstretch stands, the crowd serenaded them with boos.

“Probably not used to being booed so much,” Johnson told Hamlin, “but probably it's not you; it's me."

Nearly 15 years later, Johnson is revered for his seven championships, while Hamlin, still seeking his first Cup title, is reviled by some.

There is more to Hamlin than the role of provocateur. He’s an entertainer, team owner and future NASCAR Hall of Famer. The 43-year-old also views himself as a caretaker of the sport.

Hamlin once sought to unionize the drivers. He partnered with Michael Jordan to create 23XI Racing. Hamlin’s podcast, Actions Detrimental, is a weekly must-listen for what he will say — whether it is comments that lead to a NASCAR penalty or a new way to make the summer Cup schedule more entertaining.

But above it all, Hamlin remains a fierce competitor. Only Richard Petty (seven wins) and Cale Yarborough (four) have won more Daytona 500s than Hamlin (three).

His focus is to reach 60 career victories. He’s at 51. Should Hamlin reach that goal, he’d be only the fourth driver whose career was exclusively in the 2000s — when the competition has arguably been the stiffest in the sport's history — to reach that milestone.

Johnson marvels at Hamlin’s “commitment to his craft.” That has helped Hamlin win multiple races in eight of the last nine seasons and 12 seasons overall.

“He’s had that from the early days,” Johnson said this week at Daytona International Speedway. “ … He was always committed to always growing his skill set, and I know he studied my work at Martinsville for many years.

“Next thing you know he was the guy I had to beat at Martinsville and watched him kind of evolve and always have that mindset to work and hone his craft.”

Erik Jones, who was Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing from 2018-20, calls Hamlin “incredibly talented.”

Jones admits he originally underestimated Hamlin’s ability.

“I didn’t truly realize it just because I had been around Kyle (Busch) for so long … and then I got around Denny and (I'm) like, ‘Man, this guy is really fast and he was winning a lot,’ ” said Jones, who drove for Busch’s Truck team from 2013-15.

“I started working with (Hamlin) more and more and just his sheer ability in the car is extremely high. His talent that he had at the time, especially on the short tracks when I worked with him, it was hard to match.”

Jones notes that one of Hamlin’s best traits is his adaptability. While Hamlin’s runner-up result to Johnson for the 2010 crown is his best finish in the points, Hamlin made it to the Championship 4 each year from 2019-21 and has placed in the top five in points nine times — including each of the last five seasons.

His path to greatness should make fans love him.

Hamlin didn’t buy his ride. He earned it on talent. He was brought to a Joe Gibbs Racing test at Hickory (North Carolina) Motor Speedway to baseline a Late Model car so JGR officials could examine other drivers. But Hamlin’s performance in the car impressed Gibbs’ son, J.D., who insisted they hire Hamlin.

Joe Gibbs Racing has been Hamlin's home ever since.

Fan reaction to Hamlin changed significantly in the 2017 playoff race at Martinsville. Racing for the win, Hamlin’s shove sent Chase Elliott’s car into the wall in the closing laps. At a track where Hamlin was a favorite — he is a Virginia native — he became a villain.

While he has a significant number of supporters, Hamlin haters also have grown as he continued to have success and taunted them.

Hamlin famously antagonized fans after his Bristol win by saying that “I beat your favorite driver … all of them.” He repeated the phrase after his win earlier this month at the Clash at the Coliseum and later said he'd retire that phrase because his dad thought it was too cocky.

“He is very opinionated and is very honest about his opinion and has certainly been honest about where his motivation is coming from with those boos,” Johnson said. “It’s not easy to do – I think when I watch, I see an authentic Denny responding in that way.”

Call it the influence of Jordan, one of the greatest athletes of all time, whose skill and drive led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships from 1991-98.

“He’s got such a ferocity,” Hamlin said before last year’s playoffs about what he can take from Jordan. “He’s a person not trying to be anyone’s friend out there, he’s trying to do what’s best for him and best for his team."

Hamlin also had tried to do what is best for the sport.

During the 2014 season, Hamlin organized the drivers. He had recruited nearly every driver when NASCAR called him and Jeff Gordon in for a meeting.

“I remember (former NASCAR CEO) Brian France sitting us down and kind of giving us the whole long, ‘Be very careful of antitrust here. There’s contracts and you know, this could get very illegal and blah, blah blah,’” Hamlin said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast in 2020. “They did not want a drivers union for sure. And I still don’t think they want a drivers union.”

Hamlin said he eventually backed away from forming the union.

“I thought about it quite a bit, and I realized what I really needed to focus on was like on track,” Hamlin said on the podcast.

The Drivers Council was formed in 2015 and has gone through various iterations since.

Hamlin said four years ago that he thought the drivers needed more of a voice, especially with the Race Team Alliance representing Cup teams.

Asked where he thought drivers stand with NASCAR these days, Hamlin said this week: "I do think the drivers are in a better place now in the sense that they have an unofficial association.

“Again, it’s only a seat at the table if you’re allowed to be. It's not an official seat at the table. Saying that, the race teams and their agreement with NASCAR is why there’s butting heads there. So, there’s only a seat if you’re allowed a seat and they’re only going to allow a seat in a few certain situations, but I do think there’s avenues to the divers being more equitable in the sport in the future.”

Hamlin’s focus is on his driving and helping 23XI Racing reach his goal of competing for a championship in its fifth season. This year is the organization’s fourth season. Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace both made the playoffs last year. Expectations are higher this year.

It’s the path Jordan sought when he partnered with Hamlin ahead of the 2021 season.

“My biggest conversation to Denny was, ‘Look, I don’t want to get in there just to go around the races and just go around and around and around and finish up 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th,’ “ Jordan told NBC Sports and Fox Sports in a 2020 interview. “‘I want to win. I want to be put in a position for the best chance for us to win.’ That’s my competitive nature. That’s always been who I am.”

Hamlin shares those traits. It has helped make him one of NASCAR's most successful drivers, winning three Daytona 500s, three Southern 500s and a Coca-Cola 600.

But he's so much more than a winner of NASCAR crown jewel races. While he has the title of provocateur, entertainer and future Hall of Famer, Hamlin looks to add another label: Cup champion.