Denny Hamlin exited his car at Richmond Raceway in September just wanting to disappear, much like his car had in a race where he started second and finished 16th.
He briskly walked his way through the garage while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch celebrated a victory. Hamlin described the night as “really disappointing” in “running like a bag of (expletive).”
Hamlin’s championship hopes ended a week later at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Seven weeks after that, he finished with his first winless season in 13 years of racing in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Days such as the one at Richmond didn’t hurt Hamlin’s confidence. The 38-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver has always carried himself with a quiet swagger.
But it did lead to the constant question: How can his teammate run so much better? By the end of the 2018 season, Busch recorded eight wins and 22 top-five finishes while leading 1,469 laps; Hamlin finished with no wins, 10 top-fives and 380 laps led.
One victory, especially at the high-banked Daytona International Speedway, doesn’t serve as a verdict of whether Hamlin has found the answers. His win Sunday in the Daytona 500, though, will make any questions leading into this weekend’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2 p.m. ET, Fox) at Atlanta Motor Speedway — the first with NASCAR’s new engine configuration that will cut horsepower from 750hp to 550hp — much easier.
“Certainly, you hate the (questions) — it’s just winless season, winless season, winless season, winless season,” Hamlin said after snapping a 47-race winless streak. “It’s just like, ‘Yes I know.’ … Now we can go this year and be relaxed and not have it hanging over head.
“It’s about going out there and doing your job and winning a bunch of races.”
Throughout last season, Hamlin tried to figure out why he couldn’t match the performance of Busch. Hamlin won four poles and had 14 races where he started in the top-five, but he couldn’t turn that into full-race success.
“If we had a setup similar to Kyle, it was how was he driving it versus how was I driving it?” Hamlin said. “A lot of times, we were making the same speed, but he would just be better on restarts or their team would be executing a little bit better.
“All those little things just mattered. You just try to find holes in all the details.”
The team made the difficult decision following the 2018 season to remove Hamlin’s good friend Mike Wheeler as his crew chief and elevate Chris Gabehart, whose nine wins as an Xfinity Series crew chief from 2016-18 included one with Hamlin. Wheeler, who helped Hamlin win the 2016 Daytona 500 to open his first season as his crew chief, moved to JGR affiliate Leavine Family Racing.
“Some of the greatest drivers had winless seasons: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon,” Hamlin said. “I was never doubting whether I was still capable of winning races.”
Hamlin admitted five years ago, he might have sweated over a winless season more than he did following 2018.
“Sometimes you just get beat and sometimes it’s circumstance and I understand that a little better,” Hamlin said. “We got beat most times (in 2018). We got beat by the racing gods three times to be honest with you.”
The winless season weighed on Hamlin, according to his spotter Chris Lambert.
“I don’t think he lost any confidence in his own abilities, his own self, but you could tell it was just wearing on him,” Lambert said.
“Outwardly, at the garage, at the race track, he hid it well. … It just wore on him to the point where you start questioning yourself what can happen next.”
The Daytona 500 victory added to a Hamlin résumé that now includes two Daytona 500 victories and two Southern 500s. With 32 victories, Hamlin ranks fourth among active drivers in wins and the only active driver with at least 20 wins to not have a championship.
Hamlin said he won’t fret over whether he will win one. That isn’t the confident side of him but more the realistic side.
“I just put in all the work I can to get it done and hopefully it happens,” Hamlin said. “I could be done now and I’d be totally content with everything I accomplished. I’m not going to be burdened by any thinking over my head of not accomplishing this or that.
“I’ve already accomplished way more than I ever thought I would.”
Bob Pockrass is a Fox Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.