By David Morgan, Associate Editor
PHOENIX – Embrace the chaos.
Denny Hamlin has found himself wrapped up in a social media firestorm after his actions following last weekend’s race at Martinsville, but as he heads into the NASCAR Cup Series championship weekend in Phoenix, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is enjoying being the bad guy, turning the hate into motivation.
“I live in chaos,” Hamlin said. “My life is chaos and I thrive under chaos. I mean, honestly, you can probably ask Kyle (Busch), the more s*** that is stirred up around me, the more I come at it. I don’t mind things like that.
“To me, it’s fuel. I have so much fuel in my tank right now, from just motivation. There’s a lot of motivation there.”
Asked when his mindset shifted that way, Hamlin couldn’t point to a specific moment in time, noting that he’s always kind of been wired that way.
“I don’t know when it started,” Hamlin said. “I mean, people that have worked with me for a long time, Rod, Eddie, they would just say the crazier, the more distractions, the more locked in.
“I tore my ACL. Go out there and, like, win. It’s always just been that thriving in chaos that I made my living at. When things get boring honestly is when the performance is, like, mediocre. I don’t know why that is. There’s just something. I just think it’s my competitive fire.
“When I think about like The Last Dance, the motivation, (Michael) Jordan always said he had to come up with his own thing. He would come up with a shit-talking statement from a competitor that they didn’t say to just motivate him.
“I feel the same way. Like, I want that. I want to get pushed. I don’t know what it is. I can’t explain it. I’m wired the same way.”
Hamlin added that even though the late race spin off the bumper of Alex Bowman kept him from winning the race at Martinsville and carrying that momentum right into the championship race, he is using the defeat as more motivational fuel to power his run toward a possible first Cup Series title on Sunday.
“I wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville,” he said. “Starting in the back, going back to the back again, driving all the way to the front, and winning that race, would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right?
“I feel like that momentum was taken away from us. Then the momentum in my head swings back around to now I’m ultra-motivated. I love the feeling of proving people wrong.”
Though many may point to the fact that Hamlin has yet to win a championship despite having a number of chances to walk away with the title, he isn’t letting that fact be a negative this weekend. Instead he’s flipping the script and using it as even more motivation.
“Everyone’s go-to is ‘You haven’t won a championship,’ because there’s just nothing else they can say,” Hamlin said. “To me, I’m so motivated to go out there and show them what’s up. It’s fuel for me. It really is fuel for me. People don’t get in my head in a negative way. I turn it into positives. Into motivation.
“Some people like to go in a hole and hide from it, I do not. I got at it head on. Anyone who’s around me knows, including a lot of you in the media who’ve followed my career, when things go haywire or the s*** hits the fan, we usually come out swinging. And we will come out swinging again.”
In all of his shots at the championship, Hamlin’s closest call to winning the title came back in 2010, when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson bested him for the trophy, leaving him to finish a career-best second in the standings.
Looking back on the title fight he had with Johnson, Hamlin noted that he has transformed himself into a much more confident driver in the last 11 years, putting himself in a much better position to take the fight to his championship rivals.
“Certainly, I’m more comfortable, that’s not even a question,” Hamlin said. “I’m comfortable in who I am. Back in 2010, I didn’t have the big race wins that I have now. I certainly know that I’m championship caliber driver. There’s no question in my mind. Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn’t always been good enough, but certainly, we are as deserving as any.
“In 2010, I would have said, ‘Am I ready good enough to do this?’ I had a ton of wins in 2010 and I was battling Jimmie. Things out of my control took us from locking it up to losing it. Then I got in my own head and then I messed up. I just wasn’t as comfortable then as what I am now.”
Will the added motivation in this run at the title result in Hamlin finally hoisting the championship trophy? The moment of truth comes Sunday when the green flag drops on the championship race at 3:00 pm ET on NBC.