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Denny Hamlin doubles down by declaring this is his year to finally win the NASCAR championship

Denny Hamlin didn’t cool Sunday with his bravado that this is indeed the year he will finally win a NASCAR championship.

The day after his victory at Bristol Motor Speedway that propelled Hamlin and his No. 11 team into the second round of the NASCAR playoffs, Hamlin was still pumping his chest.

“This is our year,” Hamlin posted on social media alongside four photos from Saturday night’s victory.

He said the same thing in front of a hostile crowd in the mountains of Tennessee. Fans booed Hamlin during driver introductions, booed him when he won his 51st career race, and booed him as he celebrated with Bubba Wallace, who advanced to the second round of the playoffs playoffs to give Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, his two cars in the next round alongside the boss, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Hamlin shared an exchange with the crowd, and that’s when he first declared that this was finally his year.

Hamlin is considered the greatest NASCAR driver never to win a Cup title, and in his 18 seasons driving for Gibbs – he just signed an extension – he came agonizingly close. He lost in both the head-to-head format and the last four winners format.

A year ago, Hamlin didn’t even make it to the final four: Ross Chastain used a video game-style move in the final round to pass Hamlin and beat him for a spot in the championship round on points.

This year, Hamlin wants his place in Phoenix firmly in control. He and the No. 11 team were in contention to win early playoff games at Darlington (Kyle Larson) and Kansas (Tyler Reddick) and got another boost at Bristol when former Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick NASCAR champions and Logano, defending champion in 2022, were eliminated.

As Hamlin gnawed on the gladiator-style sword awarded to the Bristol winner, he played to the booing reception.

“At some point I have to realize, 18 years later, that I probably won’t win the Most Popular Driver award. I came to the conclusion. I understand it,” Hamlin said of how crowds have received him this season.

“They think they’re bothering me. But this clearly has a reverse effect. I invite all fans to want to go to the dark side. My five fans are still there and chanting my name.

This may be the year for Hamlin, who ranks 13th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list. His victory at Bristol broke a tie with Hall of Fame drivers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson, and every driver ahead of Hamlin on the all-time list has won at least one Cup title.

Hamlin has won every crown jewel on the NASCAR calendar – the Daytona 500 three times, in fact – but he has yet to close out a season with a Cup. The winner-take-all format makes the championship a one-race fight that Hamlin is not yet considering.

“I’m just looking to try to get there, try to get to Phoenix. Once we get there, I’ll focus on what it takes to be the best that day,” he said. “We know that week in, week out, if we’re at our best, we can’t be beaten. I just don’t think so.

“This year is definitely different. I told you before the playoffs started, this year it’s just different with the ability of our team and the speed we have.

The Round of 16 features Hamlin’s JGR teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell, as well as the two-car 23XI fleet, for five Toyotas. Truex was the regular season champion and went to Bristol in danger of elimination.

He snuck in when Logano became the first defending champion to be knocked out in the first round.

“I don’t know if this round could have gone worse,” Truex said. “I’m really excited about the next round and the reset, hopefully we avoid having so much bad luck.”

Chevrolet was successful with Kyle Larson and William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch of Richard Childress Racing and Chastain of Trackhouse Racing. Ford eliminated three drivers at Bristol and advances to the second round with Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, along with RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher.

Hamlin only won at Bristol but was strong enough to sweep the first two races, won by Larson and Reddick. His team leader, however, does not want to be called the champion’s favorite.

“I definitely think we are the favorites going into the final round,” said crew chief Chris Gabehart. “Then you get to Phoenix and it’s a race. But yes, we execute at a very high level. We have all the elements together to achieve this. Certainly, why not us?

Hamlin has long insisted he’s happy with his resume, Cup title or not. But he also knows he runs well enough to lose another one.

“I don’t think I’ve been better. I don’t think our team was better. At our best, I know we are good enough,” he said.

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AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing


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