The best driver to never win a Cup Series championship believes he can lose that tag this year.
At least that’s what Denny Hamlin told the Bristol Motor Speedway crowd as they booed his third win of the year, 51st of his career, and third in the prestigious short track Saturday night race.
“It’s our year. I just feel we’ve got it all put together,” Hamlin said. “Nothing to stop us at this point.”
Hamlin has won three Daytona 500s and most of NASCAR’s crown jewel races, but he has never won a Cup title in 18 years with Joe Gibbs Racing. He signed an extension this month and was among the strongest cars in the first round of the playoffs.
He is third behind William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports and Gibbs teammate Martin Truex Jr. with the points reset for NASCAR’s second round.
Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick were both eliminated from title contention as both NASCAR champions failed to advance out of the first round. Logano became the first reigning champion eliminated in the first round when he crashed early in the third stage and finished 34th.
He was watching as a spectator as former Gibbs teammate Hamlin celebrated.
Harvick, who is retiring at the end of the season, also was eliminated after finishing five laps down in 29th. Harvick was the first driver in 2014 to win the championship in this elimination format.
“We’ve been like that all year, hit or miss, and tonight we just missed by a mile,” Harvick said. “I’ve had some good days, some bad days, but that’s definitely the worst day with fenders. I didn’t really have many expectations, as up and down as the year has been. It is what it is, that’s probably what we deserved.”
Also eliminated were Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell, despite finishing sixth. Three Ford teams were eliminated, and Stenhouse drives a Chevrolet.
“It wasn’t enough. We were in a must-win situation,” McDowell said. “This is a learning experience. We’ll learn from this, get ready for next year.”
For Hamlin, the booing was loud when he stopped his No. 11 Toyota at the finish line. He collected the checkered flag then verbally sparred with the angry spectators.
“Everyone likes a winner, right?” he at first said of the jeers.
He confidently boasted “this is our year” for a championship, then addressed the crowd directly.
“I beat your favorite driver,” he taunted.
“Who would that be?” asked the announcer.
“All of them,” Hamlin said as he headed off to celebrate, likely with the 23XI Racing team he founded after Bubba Wallace drove his way into the second round with a 14th-place finish.
The Cup Series opens the second round of the playoffs next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, which has only one Cup race this year for the first time since 2004. Tyler Reddick won the race a year ago driving for Richard Childress Racing.