Denny Hamlin Is NASCAR's Best Driver Without A Title. That Could Change Soon.
The win would be fitting in a messy, imperfect season — for both driver and sport.
Even by the standards of a career filled with beefs, Denny Hamlin’s 2022 season has been particularly drama-filled. He’s feuded with multiple drivers, was ordered to undergo sensitivity training in April for retweeting a racist meme, became the first racer since 1960 to have a win taken away during a post-race inspection in July and, more recently, has been among NASCAR’s most outspoken critics over the new next-gen car’s safety concerns — outright calling for the sport to have “new leadership” earlier this month. Nearly 20 years into his Cup Series career, Hamlin has shifted his prickly persona and knack for making enemies (which he admits hurts his popularity among fans) into high gear.
It hasn’t been the smoothest of seasons on the track, either. Though he has a pair of wins on the year,1 Hamlin’s average finish of 16.7 is the worst he’s posted since his miserable 2013 campaign, and his 12 top 10s ranks last among Joe Gibbs Racing team drivers — several of whom have endured down years of their own. Yet, Hamlin’s performances have steadily improved as the season has progressed, and a well-timed string of five top 10s (and three top fives) in six playoff races has put him in a position to potentially win his first-ever Cup Series championship. According to the futures odds, only 2020 champ (and 2022 regular-season point leader) Chase Elliott has better odds to win than Hamlin as the series shifts to Las Vegas, where Hamlin happens to be the defending race winner, for the Round of 8.
And if Hamlin does win, his title would carry surprising historical significance. Just like golf has its Best Player To Never Win A Major, NASCAR has its best drivers who never won a Cup Series title — and you can make a strong case that Hamlin is racing’s version of that guy… for now.
Starting with the most basic of measures, Hamlin’s 48 career Cup Series wins are tied for 16th all-time, ranking second among non-champions behind Junior Johnson’s 50. Johnson, who was perhaps better known later on as a team owner/pork-product salesman, was a folk hero driving in NASCAR’s earliest era. But aside from raw wins, Hamlin drives circles around Johnson’s record in terms of top-five (206 versus 121) and top-10 finishes (317 versus 148), and has him beat on average finish as well (13.2 versus 13.5). Besides, Johnson ran his entire career before 1972, when the Cup Series’s modern era truly began.2 Among non-champions with at least 200 career races in the modern era, Hamlin beats out Carl Edwards for the best average finish of any driver.
Hamlin has a good case as the best to never win a title
Most all-time wins and lowest average finish (since 1972) for NASCAR drivers who never won a Cup Series championship in their careers
|Junior Johnson||1953-66||50||Denny Hamlin||2005-22||13.2|
|Denny Hamlin||2005-22||48||Carl Edwards||2004-16||13.6|
|Mark Martin||1981-13||40||Mark Martin||1981-13||13.9|
|Fireball Roberts||1950-64||33||Buddy Baker||1972-92||15.5|
|Carl Edwards||2004-16||28||Ryan Blaney||2014-22||15.5|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||1999-17||26||Clint Bowyer||2005-20||15.6|
|Fred Lorenzen||1956-72||26||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||1999-17||15.8|
|Jim Paschal||1949-72||25||Harry Gant||1973-94||15.9|
|Ricky Rudd||1975-07||23||Ryan Newman||2000-21||16.5|
|Jack Smith||1949-64||21||Jeff Burton||1993-14||16.5|
There are plenty of other strong candidates among the best to never win a title, to be sure. Another “Junior” — Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — famously never won a championship despite embodying the heart and soul of the sport better than anybody else in the wake of his father’s untimely death. Edwards, who ended his career as a JGR teammate of Hamlin’s, backflipped his way to nearly 30 wins while just (and I mean just) missing out on a couple of titles. And Mark Martin has long been the default leader in NASCAR’s always-a-bridesmaid rankings, finishing second in the standings five times and third on four other occasions.
Because a driver’s record is so tied up in the quality of his car, crew chief and other team factors, it’s difficult to say for certain whether Hamlin is better than his winless rivals. (It’s also a mantle no driver would really fight for anyway, if they had a choice.) But we can do a little work to compare each driver with both the field and their teammates. I indexed average-finish data from Racing-Reference.info against the NASCAR Cup Series average each season, in the manner of FanGraphs’ “minus” stats for baseball pitchers — where 100 is average and lower is better. Hamlin’s career Finish- of 62 means his typical finish was 38 percent better than the average driver, which is tied for sixth-best among all drivers with at least 200 races since 1972. I also computed the average Finish- of driver’s teammates in the same season to get a baseline expectation for drivers with similar equipment. And while Hamlin has always driven for a good team at JGR, he’s managed to beat his talented colleagues by 9 points of Finish- on average.
Though that number lags Martin (who had a 65 Finish- but beat teammates by 15 points) and Edwards (62 and 12), it handily beats Earnhardt Jr. (72 and 5) and ranks among the best of the non-champs. (Notwithstanding the incredible outlier that was Harry “The Bandit” Gant, who switched teams often in the 1970s and ‘80s but always dominated whoever else drove those cars.) All told, Hamlin’s combination of absolute and relative performance makes him as good a pick as any for the best driver without a Cup title.
There’s a certain measure of irony that 2022 could be the season to remove that tag from Hamlin’s career. He’s had other, far more dominant performances over the years — including 2009, when he finished fifth but beat JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano by 22 points of Finish-; 2010, when he led the standings going into the final race but lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson; and one of 2019, 2020 or 2021 (take your pick), when Hamlin lost in the Championship 4 three straight years despite notching the best Finish- (46), most wins (15) and most top-five finishes (56) of any driver. Compared with those performances, Hamlin’s 2022 numbers — an 88 Finish-, two wins and eight top fives in 32 races — seem downright pedestrian. But the upward trajectory of his season, combined with the quirks of NASCAR’s playoff system and the lack of a dominant alternative in the next-gen car’s debut campaign, makes Hamlin’s first career championship a very real possibility.
It might also be Hamlin’s last good chance to remove himself from the best-to-never-win club. At age 41, he is hitting the career phase when a driver’s performance tends to fall off a cliff; Hamlin even talked about that research in a conversation with Earnhardt earlier this year. His future as a team owner — not a driver — is beckoning, as the 23XI Racing team he founded with Michael Jordan in 2020 has expanded its roster of up-and-coming drivers to include Bubba Wallace and, soon, Tyler Reddick. (In classic Hamlin-esque fashion, Reddick’s departure from Richard Childress Racing couldn’t be tension-free.) So if there was ever a time for Hamlin to finally add a championship to his resume, it’s this season — as messy, drama-filled and imperfect as it has been.