Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – Denny Hamlin enters the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs without a contract to drive next season, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have job security.
Though Hamlin expressed emphatically his desire to return to No. 11 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, he does have other options—namely the 23XI Racing team he owns with NBA superstar Michael Jordan.
“I have a race team—I always have options,” Hamlin bantered on Thursday during the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Media Day at the Charlotte Convention Center. “If you’re just a driver, you’re at the mercy of whoever will hire you.
“I will hire me. And I should be the highest-paid driver in the deal.”
Hamlin’s 23XI team currently fields cars for Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace, both of whom qualified for the Cup Series postseason, which starts Sunday with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
A third car at the organization might be a possibility in 2024 if Hamlin can’t come to terms with JGR.
“If an apocalypse comes, yeah,” Hamlin quipped.
Apocalypse aside, the first order of business is the Playoffs. Hamlin has been tantalizingly close to the title on several occasions. In 2010, under what was then the 10-race Chase format, he led the standings entering the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway but lost out to Jimmie Johnson’s record fifth straight Cup title.
Since the introduction of the elimination Playoff format in 2014, Hamlin has qualified for the Championship 4 Round four times, with a best finish of third in 2014 and 2021.
“I should have won in 2010,” Hamlin said. “I (screwed) that up pretty bad. Certainly, Jimmie got in my head there, and I just second-guessed what had made me successful the whole time.”
In 2021, Hamlin was chasing JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the lead late in the Championship 4 race at Phoenix.
“And the caution came out,” Hamlin recalled. “And (Kyle) Larson went from fourth to first on the pit stop. “I would say that, in 2019, when we put the piece of tape on the car, I was running Kyle Busch down at the end.
“I was a couple seconds back from him—it was Homestead—but I hadn’t even pushed yet. I was just waiting, waiting, waiting… and then all of a sudden we put the tape on the car, and we blow up.
“There’s like a five-way tie (for closest call to the title).”
Kyle Busch would love to deliver a championship to his new team
Richard Childress Racing has long been one of the marquee teams in the NASCAR Cup Series.
RCR has accounted for six championships at NASCAR’s highest level, all of them fashioned by driver Dale Earnhardt Sr.
The organization, however, hasn’t reached the pinnacle of the sport since Earnhardt won his final title in 1994. Kyle Busch would like nothing better than to end the drought in his first year with NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Richard Childress.
“It would be phenomenal—it would be awesome,” Busch said. “That’s what we all strive for. I don’t care what team I’m at, I’m going to go try to win a championship, right?
“But to have the history and the legacy of RCR and everything that they’ve done over the years—with Earnhardt and with the other drivers that have been there… yeah, it’s been a little quiet lately, but that would be nice to shake that up.
“I feel like when you’re in the final four, that is a championship season. You’ve just got to go out and execute in that last race, and there are so many things that can go against you in that last race to not let you win a championship, but that’s a title season.”
A two-time Cup champion, Busch has won three times in his first year with Childress, but that’s below the benchmark he sets for himself.
“(Five) is always my number,” Busch said. “Anytime you look at a championship season of a driver, they’ve got around five wins. That’s been a good year. You can always bank yourself as being a championship guy if you’ve got five wins…
“So, let’s win two of these final 10, and then we’ll really have something to talk about.”
William Byron is buoyed by previous victories at five Playoff tracks
Of William Byron’s nine career victories, five have come at tracks that appear in the 10-race NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, starting with Darlington, which hosts the postseason-opening Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
In addition to the Track Too Tough to Tame, Byron has victories in the Next Gen car at Martinsville (Round of 8 elimination race), Las Vegas (Round of 8 opener) and Phoenix (Championship 4 race). His victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Round of 8 second race) came in 2021 in the Gen 6 iteration of NASCAR’s Cup car.
Bottom line? Byron has victories at the final four tracks in the Playoffs.
“I didn’t know that stat,” said Byron, who enters the postseason with 36 Playoff points, tied for most with Martin Truex Jr. “It’s nice to know that a lot of the tracks line up well for us. It’s a comforting thing to know that. But I don’t want to think too far ahead and get too excited about Vegas or even Phoenix, because we’re not there yet.
“So, we’ve got to get there first and hopefully this first round goes smooth and we don’t have too many headaches at night and can get through it.”
Byron doesn’t have a victory at any of the tracks in the Round of 12, and Talladega is particularly concerning.
“Talladega’s a weak track for us right now, admittedly,” said Byron, who leads the series with five victories this season. “We didn’t feel great about how Daytona went (last Saturday). We finished eighth but didn’t have a lot of up-front speed.
“So, we’ve just got to hopefully work on Talladega. The (Charlotte) Roval (Round of 12 elimination race) I feel good about, because we just won a road course race (at Watkins Glen).”
Brad Keselowski has neither the time nor the inclination to relax
When Brad Keselowski signed on as a co-owner/driver at Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing last year, he joined a company that had been floundering.
From 2015 through 2021, the company founded by NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Roush had won two races—both on superspeedways and both by 2023 Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has since moved on to JTG-Daugherty Racing.
RFK picked up one victory last season in the person of Chris Buescher, who has added three wins to his column this season. Both RFK cars—those of Buescher and Keselowski—have qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs this year.
But Keselowski isn’t satisfied. Asked whether he thought the organization was ahead of the schedule he envisioned when he joined the company, he replied emphatically, “Oh, no. Gosh, I wanted to be here last year.
“But that’s not where we were. That’s not what we were prepared for. The good news is we’re here now, and we still have a lot of potential.”
Keselowski has to balance family life and his work as both an owner and a driver with heading a 3D-printing company he founded in 2019. He doesn’t care that his duties don’t give him time to relax.
“I don’t want to relax,” Keselowski said. “I don’t want to be on vacation. I want to win. I want to be a part of fixing this. That’s the juice for me. Being on the beach or whatever, that’s not fun.
“Fun for me is turning around a company and seeing guys like Chris Buescher be successful, seeing a new pit crew guy come in or a mechanic who’s never won a race or a new partner come into the sport and have their first chance in Victory Lane.
“That’s better than any vacation I’ll ever go on.”