NASCAR Cup Series Championship Four Media Day – Denny Hamlin Hopes To Find Title From Chaos

Denny Hamlin speaks to the media during the 2021 NASCAR Championship Four Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center Thursday (Photo: Sean Gardner/Sean Gardner)

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Out of chaos, Denny Hamlin hopes to be a NASCAR Cup Series champion at long last.

The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota freely acknowledges his life is a hectic scramble with no small share of controversy, and it’s no different with Sunday’s Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in the offing. 

Hamlin has to balance family life with racing life, which includes not only competing for the series championship for owner Joe Gibbs but also his fledgling ownership with NBA superstar Michael Jordan of another Cup team, 23XI Racing. 

“How do I get up every morning and take my kids to school at 7:30?,” Hamlin asked rhetorically during Championship 4 Media Day interviews Thursday at the Phoenix Convention Center. “How do I go to 23XI and work for a couple days in the middle of the week during a Playoff run?

“I live in chaos. My life is chaos, and I thrive under chaos… The more (crap) that is stirred up around me, the more I come at it.”

Controversy drives Hamlin. Though Alex Bowman wrecked Hamlin and went on to win last Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, it was Hamlin who was roundly booed by fans in the grandstands for the harsh nature of his post-race comments. 

Hamlin called Bowman a “hack.” Bowman gleefully made T-shirts sporting the comment. To Hamlin, it was just another day in the life—and motivation to provide an “in-your-face” to his detractors. 

“To me, it’s fuel,” Hamlin said. “I’ve got so much fuel in my tank right now. There’s a lot of motivation there. I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville. Starting in the back, going to the back again and driving all the way to the front and winning that race would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right? 

“I feel like that momentum was taken from us, but again, the momentum in my head swings back around to now I’m ultra-motivated, because I love the feeling of just like proving people wrong.” 

Statistically, Hamlin has been the fastest of the Championship 4 drivers on tracks that feature NASCAR’s 750-horsepower competition package. That’s a source of confidence this year. 

More important, however, is Hamlin’s evolution as a driver and a person since 2010, when he held the championship lead entering the final race but lost the title to Jimmie Johnson.

“Certainly, I’m more comfortable (today),” Hamlin acknowledged. “That’s not even a question. I’m comfortable in who I am. Back in 2010, I didn’t have the big race wins that I’ve had. I certainly know that I’m a championship-caliber driver. There’s not a question in my mind.

“Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn’t always been good enough. But certainly, we’re as deserving as any. In 2010, I would have said, ‘Am I really good enough to do this?’ I had a ton of wins, and in 2010 I was battling Jimmie, and things out of my control took us from locking it up to losing.

“And then I got in my own head, and I messed up. I just wasn’t as comfortable as what I am now.”

NASCAR Cup Series Championship Four (L-R) Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson pose for photos during the 2021 NASCAR Championship Four Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center Thursday (Photo: Sean Gardner/Sean Gardner)

Chase Elliott brings recent experience to quest for second straight title

Two of the Championship 4 drivers—Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr.—have NASCAR Cup Series championships to their credit, but Elliott is the only one who can go back-to-back with a victory in Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

If Elliott can win a second straight title, he’ll join fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson as the only Cup competitors in the 21st century to win consecutive championships. Johnson won five straight from 2006 through 2010. 

The last driver before Johnson to go back-to-back was another Hendrick stalwart—Jeff Gordon in 1997 and 1998. 

“I think, having gone through the motions last year, we learned a lot about ourselves and about what’s important,” Elliott said. “How to perform in a big moment is a nice thing you can carry with you forward. On the same token, we didn’t have any of that experience last year, and it worked out OK.

“I feel like, for us, we just dive into what matters, and the guy who goes the fastest and runs the best race and executes a good day on Sunday will be rewarded, and that’s where our focus is. 

Despite his nine victories, Kyle Larson doesn’t see himself as the favorite

Unlike all three of his Championship 4 opponents, Kyle Larson hasn’t ever won a NASCAR Cup Series event at Phoenix Raceway.

In fact, this year’s three other title aspirants collectively have been victorious in three of the last four races at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert—Denny Hamlin in the 2019 Playoff race, Chase Elliott in last year’s season finale and Martin Truex Jr. this past spring.

But Larson’s status as a non-winner at Phoenix can hardly be deemed disqualifying when it comes to handicapping the championship race. All of his series-best nine victories this season have come on tracks where he had never won before. 

Of greater concern is Larson’s performance on tracks that feature NASCAR’s 750-horsepower competition package. The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was seventh at Phoenix in March, fifth and 14th in two Martinsville races, 18th and sixth in two Richmond events and seventh at one-mile New Hampshire.

Those numbers don’t portend well for a championship outcome, and that’s why Larson doesn’t consider himself a clear favorite to win the title.

“I don’t think you can look at any of the four of us and really pick a favorite,” Larson said. “A lot of the races I won this year are the 550 package, high-downforce stuff. You could look at it maybe that’s what would hinder me. 

“We’ve been good at the 750 races, too. I think it’s pretty equal. Yeah, I’m excited to compete with these three other guys.”

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