The opening quarter of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule its new Next Gen car have produced 10 different race winners thus far, one of them being Joe Gibbs Racing wheelman Denny Hamlin, who raced to victory at Richmond in early April. While that was obviously a major positive so early on in the season, basically nothing has gone right for the Virginian since. The next five Cup races brought 28th, 35th, 18th and two 21st-place finishes for Hamlin, the most recent run at Darlington ending in smoke, burnt rubber and bent metal when he and his No. 11 Toyota Camry were caught up in a massive shunt 260 laps into the race. With that win being his only one top-10 finish this season, the 41-year-old veteran of 18 Cup seasons will now look to Kansas Speedway this weekend to bring some sort of relief to what has been one beautiful mess of a season.
“Certainly we’ve just kind of had a rough year in general with stuff happening that is out of our control,” mused Hamlin. “And some stuff was in our control, but… We are definitely going through Next Gen car growing pains right now, that’s for sure.
“Some of it’s the new car, but some of it has just been mistakes we made as a team or getting caught up in other people’s wrecks and things that we can’t control also has really been the big factors in our performance.”
Not long after the No. 11 team’s race was run at Darlington, crew chief Chris Gabehart mentioned to NBC Sports, “I am convinced that we are the most dangerous 22nd-place points team in the history of the sport.” While aware of the ups-and-downs the team has been forced to put up with this spring, Hamlin pushed back on any suggestion he was content with the status quo.
“I certainly think that by no means are we a 22nd-place team,” said Hamlin, who led 42 laps at Darlington before it all went sideways. “That’s not even in the realm of where we are at or where we think we are. But right now, it is where we are at, so we’ve got to deal with it and we’ve got to fix the things that we’re messing up with and then hope that somehow the racing gods just finally give us a break, you know? That’s the biggest thing. We’re going to control what we can control and just hope that we don’t just eventually keep crapping out with every roll. Eventually things are going to start to go your way, and when they do, we’re going to win a lot of races.”
Although Hamlin has a 22.3 average finishing position and four DNFs so far into the year, the 47-time Cup race winner and three-time Daytona 500 champion is ready to burn the midnight oil to change that.
“I’m a worker just like my team is and we know the bigger picture and we’re going be fine. I really do believe that,” he insisted. “I know that we’re all going to be fine, whether it be my team or myself personally. It’s just, honestly, a frustrating time right now because so many things have gone wrong. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know that it is very rare, that a team or a person can have as bad of luck as what I’ve had this year. It has been pretty incredible.”
Also weighing on Hamlin’s mind is the second-year 23XI Racing team in which he is a partner with NBA legend Michael Jordan. Like Hamlin, 23XI Racing team drivers Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch have struggled in 2022. 12 races in, Busch and Wallace are positioned in 21st and 24th places respectively in the standings, neither racer having a top 10 finish to their name yet in 2022.
“You know, honestly, for the first probably six or seven races, I’ve been pretty disappointed with the performance and where they are at and everything,” explained Hamlin of 23XI. “The moment they started to turn it around, then they’ve had s••t luck. I mean, some things are things that we’ve got to work on and unfortunately, they’re not things that we work on. That’s the pit crews. The pit crews have been a big part of our race team’s performance this year and unfortunately, those aren’t people that we employ. We pay JGR a service for that and it has been underwhelming, to say the least. There have been a lot of conversations that we’ve had around that and how we can get it better.
“Really, what we can control is our drivers. Everyone is frustrated but let things work themselves out. Let us go out there and fight battles with pit crews and trying to get them better. I’m going to continue to fight on the competition side for them to bring better cars to the racetracks. I’ve got faith in my drivers and honestly, as a team, we’ve let them down early in the season.”
Despite the fact that he’s fighting for his racing life in the No. 11 car while keeping his eyes cast on his race team’s No. 45 and No. 23 cars, Hamlin is fine with having his hands absolutely full on any given Cup race weekend.
“It’s been pretty easy for me,” said Hamlin of his NASCAR Cup juggling act. “I focus on the weekends, particularly as a driver and working on my 11 car — I really can’t give them the attention that they need on the weekends because of what my job is. But I’ve got people in place that I trust and we look out for their interests and we work on getting better. I’m really confident that the people that are in place there are going to continue to help that team continue to grow until I’m there full-time.”