One of the most consistent drivers during the 2021 season, Denny Hamlin often found himself in the mix for trophies and dustups.
Editor‘s Note: This continues the series of season reviews for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs drivers.
Driver: Denny Hamlin
Car: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry
Crew chief: Chris Gabehart
Final 2021 ranking: 3rd
Key stats: 2 wins, 19 top fives, 25 top 10s, 1,502 laps led
How 2021 ended:
Hamlin had perhaps the quickest long-run car in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway. That advantage was negated when a yellow flag flew for debris with 30 laps to go, setting up a 24-lap dash to the checkered flag. Despite advancing to the Championship 4 for the third straight season, Hamlin couldn‘t find a way past Kyle Larson or teammate Martin Truex Jr. and finished third in the race and in the final standings.
The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway to start the playoffs showcased Hamlin‘s Darlington dominance yet again. After starting on the front row, Hamlin was a top-five contender all race long and took the green-and-white checkered flag to win Stage 1 before finishing fourth in Stage 2.
A flurry of late cautions did little to impact Hamlin‘s race as the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota excelled on each restart to maintain a top-two position. Hamlin led 146 laps around “The Lady in Black” and seemed destined to cruise to victory on the final lap. A sudden charge from Larson in Turns 3 and 4, however, put those checkered hopes in doubt.
Larson burst to Hamlin‘s back bumper to eliminate a four-car-length gap and rode the outside wall all the way to Hamlin‘s right-rear quarter panel. Nonetheless, Hamlin was able to defend the run and claim his first win of 2021 that September night at the track “Too Tough to Tame.”
The No. 11 team also deserves praise for its triumph at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to open the Round of 12 later that month. After early cautions led to critical pit-strategy calls from the pit box, crew chief Chris Gabehart put Hamlin in perfect position to dominate the day in the desert. Hamlin led 137 of 267 laps en route to his second and final win of the season.
Other season highlights:
Hamlin found success nearly every week in 2021, even if that wasn‘t reflected in the win column. Hamlin led 276 of 500 laps in the spring race at Martinsville Speedway before finishing third, then followed that up a week later by leading 207 of 400 at Richmond Raceway before a runner-up finish.
In the inaugural race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Hamlin led 26 circuits and found himself in a battle for the win with rookie Chase Briscoe entering the race‘s final restart in overtime.
However, Briscoe, who missed Turn 1 and cut through the grass, was issued a stop-and-go penalty while racing just behind Hamlin. Contact from Briscoe then sent Hamlin spinning out of the lead and the top 20, relegating Hamlin to a 23rd-place finish.
At Martinsville in the fall, Hamlin had led 103 laps and was door-to-door racing with Alex Bowman for the top spot. But entering Turn 3 with seven laps to go, Bowman turned Hamlin, dealing the No. 11 a similar fate to Indianapolis. Hamlin finished 24th but had enough points banked to advance to the Championship 4 regardless of the poor result.
Stats to know:
Hamlin was remarkably consistent all season long. Out of the 36-race season, Hamlin only finished outside the top 15 four times: Talladega Superspeedway-1 (32nd), Nashville Superspeedway (21st), Indy (23rd) and Martinsville-2 (24th).
His win total dwindled from seven in 2020 to just two, but Hamlin actually managed to lead more laps in 2021 than he did in either of the past two seasons. He was out front for 1,502 circuits this year, eclipsing his mark of 1,083 laps in 2020 and 922 laps in 2019, a year in which he won six events.
“He‘s just a hack. He‘s an absolute hack. He gets his [expletive] kicked by his teammates every week. [Expletive] terrible. He sees one opportunity and he takes it. He‘s got the fastest car every week and he runs 10th. He didn‘t wanna race us there.” — Hamlin on contact from Bowman racing for the lead at Martinsville on Oct. 31
Hamlin has made the Championship 4 for three consecutive years, and while he has come close, the veteran driver has yet to break through to win his first Cup Series championship. The Next Gen car brings with it new opportunities — perhaps the opportunity Hamlin needs to add the missing piece to his resume.