By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
*Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season for the full-time drivers in the series leading into next month’s 61st running of the Daytona 500.
Years in Cup: 13
Career Wins: 31
Biggest Accomplishment: 2016 Daytona 500 Winner
Despite having speed throughout the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Denny Hamlin saw his worst results since 2013. For the first time in his full-time career, he went winless in the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry.
Twice, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver came tantalizingly close to victory lane. He finished runner-up to Chase Elliott in the playoff race at Dover International Speedway, and nearly stole a victory from eventual 2018 Champion Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway. Although Hamlin came close to victory lane in the second round of the playoffs, he was eliminated after a lackluster first round.
Hamlin finished 11th in the final standings, his worst since 2013 when he suffered a broken back in an accident on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway. 10 top-five finishes mark the fewest since 2014. Hamlin also earned 17 top-10s, his fewest since 2013. His speed was evident in four pole positions, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway
While Hamlin struggled to reach victory lane, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch tied for a series-high eight victories in 2018. Erik Jones also broke through to reach victory lane, leaving Hamlin and Daniel Suarez as the only winless JGR drivers.
Looking ahead to 2019, Hamlin will see the departure of Suarez as a teammate, and Martin Truex, Jr. moving in-house at JGR. He will also have a new crew chief as Chris Gabehart will replace his long-time crew chief Mike Wheeler.
A new aero package will also be a major unknown that all teams will face. Hamlin’s only experience in a similar package came in the Monster Energy All-Star Race where he started 14th and finished fourth. Busch and Jones have more experience, running similar packages in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2017 and 2018.
Ultimately, Hamlin, Gabehart, and the entire No. 11 JGR team will look to rebound after a disappointing 2018.