Driver-owner Denny Hamlin caused a stir when he said the championship round of the Cup Series playoffs should have three races instead of just one. Now he has offered more comments, highlighting past fights at Phoenix Raceway.
Hamlin met with the media in Nashville ahead of the NASCAR Awards. He provided several comments on the current playoff format and how it differs greatly from those used in the NBA and MLB. He then shared a personal story about one of his near-miss seasons in the Cup Series.
“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly. Should a season end in that three hour window?” Hamlin asked. “Listen all the champions were worthy nonetheless and I’m the last person to comment on this because I’ve never won one and I’m just going to sound like a bitter idiot who never won one.
“But I’m just telling you – from a pure point of view – it has to have a larger sample size. Because I can tell you this for sure, my mom knew I wasn’t going to win that championship in 2020 because she flew in one flight with Coy [Gibbs] and he says, “Yeah, we don’t stand a chance. Our cars are just not good on circuits like this. So we have zero shot.’ And so she says, ‘Oh, well, that stinks.’ And I knew we wouldn’t win. We just didn’t have the speed that the others had.”
The veteran Cup Series driver was one of the championship favorites going into the season. He has been in the bottom four for three straight years and has had 46 career wins.
Hamlin struggled with finishes outside the top 20 early in the 2022 season, but he won two races to get back into the playoffs. As the last 10 races started he started putting in top 10 finishes. That includes back-to-back runner-ups at Darlington Raceway and Kansas Speedway.
In the end, Hamlin missed fourth in the championship through no fault of his own. He had passed enough drivers at Martinsville Speedway to get over the cut line, but Ross Chastain eliminated him by driving the wall and passing five cars before crossing the finish line.
“I’m looking at the playoff boys’ average score. Like I’ve been shitty all year long,” Hamlin continued. “And then when it came down to the playoffs, we had a six-point average, and I was like, ‘Damn.’ And we didn’t make the last four on such a great playoff run, probably the best 10-race playoff run I’ve had. So it’s just… That’s the format we have.”
The current playoff format is designed to create “Game 7” moments where drivers will do whatever it takes to take the checkered flag first and win an all-important race. It has worked at tracks like Martinsville Speedway or the Charlotte Roval in the past, but the championship race told a different story.
Would attending a three-race series instead of one event cause ratings to plummet? Hamlin doesn’t think that would be the case. He said there would be no one to win the first two races and secure the trophy, so fans would still have to watch the season finale.
Hamlin also pointed out that the championship-eligible drivers are still up against the full field. There are 36 cars on the track but only four of them can win the trophy. Though the 32 cars can still throw a wrench in the proverbial works by issuing a late warning that reshuffles the lineup.
“We saw in 2021 – I think 21 – that the championship was won on the pit lane,” Hamlin said. “Is it really… Does it have to be a pit stop? I just do not know. I just feel like you’ve spread this out over a three-race series, as Dale mentioned – and I’ll make sure everyone does [is] to say it was Dale’s idea. I think it just doesn’t matter who has the best pit crew. That’s just… you’ll have more legitimacy.”