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Interview

Why Denny Hamlin has embraced becoming NASCAR's villain

Few drivers divide opinion quite like Denny Hamlin, who secured his passage into the next phase of the NASCAR Cup playoffs with victory last weekend at Bristol. In an exclusive interview, the three-time Daytona 500 winner explains why he's accepted his unpopularity with fans and how he's using it to fuel his bid for an elusive first Cup crown

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx Freight Direct Toyota Camry

Denny Hamlin is the NASCAR Cup driver fans most love to hate. But, in many ways, he also epitomises the type of driver they most covet – one that worked his way up by talent and wasn’t handed the keys to a high-profile ride because he came with a lot of money.

It’s a complex contradiction that has enveloped Hamlin in the twilight of his driving career, but one he has come to embrace and admittedly doesn’t fully understand.

Race fans cringe when young drivers gain access to top rides especially when it’s because they come with big money sponsorship or a big check from their parents. They may or may not also have the talent to match the money, but in NASCAR circles, “earning’ rides through success up the lower-level series is seen as a sort of rite of passage.

Hamlin’s NASCAR journey is all of that – and more.

He raced Late Models in Virginia, growing up in cars funded by his family, who nearly went broke until he was discovered by the late president of Joe Gibbs Racing, J.D. Gibbs, and given the opportunity to run five Truck races and one Xfinity race with their backing in 2004.

“I didn’t have anything handed to me. I had to work really, really hard for it,” Hamlin tells Autosport. “I worked a blue-collar job just like most everyone else has. I don’t know how many people in the field of NASCAR drivers right now actually had to work fast food or had to work as a welder or a fabricator in their dad’s shop.”

A full-time move to Cup funded by Fortune 500 company FedEx came in 2006 and 51 wins and nearly 17 years later, Hamlin – now age 42 – remains just as competitive as ever.

Hamlin was greeted with a chorus of boos when he collected the checkered flag after winning at Bristol

Hamlin was greeted with a chorus of boos when he collected the checkered flag after winning at Bristol

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

NASCAR's most hated driver?

But victory number 51, which came Saturday night at Bristol, served as a reminder that in a relatively short period of time Hamlin has fallen out of favour with NASCAR fans. For one night anyway, it was clear that if Chase Elliott is NASCAR’s most popular driver, Hamlin has now become its most hated.

And what likely riles his “haters” even more: Hamlin is absolutely revelling in the moment.

“I thought I was really just sort of a middle-of-the-road guy when it came to who fans liked or disliked,” Hamlin says. “You had like Joey Logano and the really popular drivers back in the day – Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – but as they retired, right, people wanted to root against someone.

“So, for a while it was Joey. But he hasn’t really had track stuff that’s really fuelled it of late and I think I probably have. I’m just kind of the heel of right now.”

"I’ve come to accept there’s just a certain amount of it that will just never go away because as they see it, on one given weekend, I did their driver wrong" Denny Hamlin

For much of his Cup career, Hamlin didn’t come across as a driver who evoked a lot of emotion either way. He garnered a lot of attention as a Cup rookie by winning two races and finishing third in the series standings – an impressive accomplishment on par with Hall of Fame drivers Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

Hamlin earned some bad press back in 2007 when he was scheduled to run an Xfinity Series race at the Milwaukee Mile during the same weekend as the Cup race at Sonoma. Aric Almirola, then a development driver for JGR, practiced and qualified Hamlin’s car and he started the race when Hamlin failed to get to the track in time for the race’s start.

Instead of allowing Almirola to finish the race, however, JGR had Hamlin get in the car under caution when he arrived. Hamlin went on to win the race, but officially, Almirola was credited with the victory. Even then, it was JGR that received the brunt of the fan blowback rather than Hamlin himself.

A funny thing happened on the way to Hamlin ingratiating himself with NASCAR fans, however. He – quite literally – ran into two of the Cup series’ most popular drivers.

Hamlin has raced for Joe Gibbs Racing since his emergence in the Cup Series, winning his first race at Pocono in 2006 and finishing third in points that year

Hamlin has raced for Joe Gibbs Racing since his emergence in the Cup Series, winning his first race at Pocono in 2006 and finishing third in points that year

Photo by: LAT Photographic

The first instance was in 2017, when Hamlin draw an unexpected highly negative response from Virgina fans when he wrecked Elliott in a playoff race at Martinsville that left the son of NASCAR icon Bill Elliott without a shot to compete for his first series championship the following week.

The other was far more recent, in this season’s July race at Pocono, when Hamlin ran Kyle Larson – with whom he is close friends – up the track and into the wall racing for the lead with less than 10 laps remaining in the race. Hamlin went on to win the race and was loudly booed after exiting his car on the frontstretch.

It probably didn’t help that in May, after Elliott intentionally wrecked Hamlin out of frustration in the Coca-Cola 600, Hamlin called for Elliott’s suspension in interviews after the race and on his weekly podcast, and NASCAR obliged. Although NASCAR’s suspension of Elliott was quite in line with recent previous penalties, fans of Elliott – or “haters” of Hamlin or both – were quick to question his motives.

In any case, since the summer, any time Hamlin is recognised publicly at the race track it has become a reason for a celebratory round of jeers.

“I think the two most popular drivers in our series – Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott – I’ve had run-ins with them. I think fans in general won’t let go of those grudges, right?” Hamlin reflects. “They won’t look past those instances no matter what.

“I’ve come to accept there’s just a certain amount of it that will just never go away because as they see it, on one given weekend, I did their driver wrong.”

Can a driver that represents everything fans say they want their stars to be so quickly become the object of their derision simply by who he has tangled with on the track? Hamlin thinks so, “100 percent.”

“The proof is in what have been the results since those points in time? Now when I get wrecked, I get booed,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I got wrecked and I’m getting booed? I didn’t do shit. I’m the victim.’

Calling for Elliott to be suspended for intentionally wrecking him didn't ingratiate Hamlin with the fanbase of NASCAR's most popular driver

Calling for Elliott to be suspended for intentionally wrecking him didn't ingratiate Hamlin with the fanbase of NASCAR's most popular driver

Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images

“That’s just what NASCAR fandom is. There are a group of fans that cannot see past the lens right in front of them which is, ‘my favourite driver and that’s all I see.’ ”

My, how that vision has blurred in recent years. What Hamlin finds most interesting is how some fans seem put off by him when in fact he comes from a background that mirrors many of theirs.

“I feel like the fans feel like they don’t relate to me at all,” he says. “I mean, I do have flashy stuff and this, that and the other. But honestly, I feel we are more similar than people understand. I came from nothing. I definitely had to come up the tough way, but it made me appreciate when I did get success.”

"This late in my career I’m not going to change many people’s minds, for sure. I just have to be myself" Denny Hamlin

But that, too, may have played against him. Hamlin says: “When I did find success, I was like, ‘Hey, I should be able to enjoy this.’ I should be able to have nice things because I worked really, really hard for it.’ I think that stuff kind of rubs fans generally the wrong way.”

It almost seems like a no-win situation, one that he has grown to accept.

“I realise this late in my career I’m not going to change many people’s minds, for sure,” Hamlin acknowledges. “I just have to be myself. I know myself is a shit-talker and someone that loves competition and motivation and anything you say that I feel against, I’m going to use it as motivation.

“It’s just going to make me better. That’s just my personality.”

Hamlin won the Daytona 500 for a third time in 2020, but his lack of a championship title remains a frustration

Hamlin won the Daytona 500 for a third time in 2020, but his lack of a championship title remains a frustration

Photo by: Jasen Vinlove / NKP / Motorsport Images

The elusive championship

If Hamlin was Superman, fans think they know his kryptonite. Fans love to point out to the driver they love to hate the one glaring omission from his otherwise overflowing resume – a Cup series title.

As good as Hamlin does, as many wins as he racks up, despite all the times he’s succeeded in the face of tough odds, he’s constantly, repeatedly and many times in obscene ways reminded he has never won a championship.

“That is their go-to because they have nothing else, they literally have nothing else,” Hamlin shrugs. “It’s the most uneducated statement anyone could ever make – that I’m no good because I haven’t won a championship.

“I know damn well that I’m better than a lot of the champions we’ve had in our sport. There is zero question in my mind if we race heads up, same car, same everything, I will beat them. But it’s not the sport we’re in. This is a team sport and there are a lot of things out of your control as a driver. It is not a one-man band.”

And don’t think for one minute Hamlin believes that if 2023 is indeed the year he wins his first series title, that it will change anything, even the boos.

“Winning a title will not change their opinion about me,” Hamlin says. “I could win the next two or three in a row and it’s not going to change their opinion because they just dislike me. And that’s OK.

“I don’t for one minute believe it will silence them. They will just go on to something else to think about because they are in misery, basically. They have nothing else to complain about. I am very comfortable in everything I’ve accomplished.

“There is no other legit argument to make – all they say is, ‘No championship.’ Well, explain that. Expand on that. So, you think I’m not good enough? I’m not a good enough driver? That’s just fucking silly. You’re just showing how ignorant you are if that is the only argument you have against me.”

Hamlin remains fully confident in his own ability and is intent on making 2023 his year

Hamlin remains fully confident in his own ability and is intent on making 2023 his year

Photo by: Rachel Schuoler / NKP / Motorsport Images

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