By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Long runs were Denny Hamlin’s superpower on Sunday afternoon in Phoenix, but instead he just got kryptonite.
Coming into the weekend as fired up as ever to finally win a NASCAR Cup Series championship of his own, Hamlin knew that if he was going to make that happen, he needed a long run for his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to come to life and propel him to the front of the field.
Just as Hamlin started closing ground on the leaders and looked to be back in the game to challenge for the title, a caution flew for debris on lap 283, setting up a final sprint to the finish.
Restarting behind Kyle Larson and teammate Martin Truex, Jr., Hamlin was left to just watch his two championship rivals pull away out of his windshield as they dueled it out for the title.
Larson would go on to score his 10th win of the season to bring home the championship, while Hamlin crossed the line in third place, falling short of the championship yet again.
“I really liked where we were at with about 25 to go,” Hamlin said. “We were just exceptional in the long run, which wasn’t too surprising, but started running the 19 back down there and got within a couple car lengths and obviously that debris caution changed a lot.
“Special congrats to Larson and his team. Those guys, any time you can win 10 races in a year, you’re absolutely a deserving champion. They did a great job on the last pit stop and got him out there, and it was just set sail after that.
“Proud of my team. Really great effort adjusting on the car all day, getting it so much better, and thank our partners in Toyota, FedEx, Coca-Cola, Jordan Brand. Just a really good year. A really, really good year, and things just didn’t pan out.”
Hamlin noted that the reason he was so fired up to go out and win the championship this year was due in large part to the big unknown that comes with the Next Gen car starting in 2022. He said that while his team has been good with the current Gen 6 car, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the No. 11 team will be able to get the same performance when they hit the track next year.
While the disappointment they didn’t get it done was evident, Hamlin added that he’ll just have to live with it and move on.
“This is the last generation of this car that I took a very good liking to over the last three years. We don’t know what the Next-Gen car brings,” Hamlin said. “We don’t know will our team be as good. Like there’s just many, many question marks that happens after this.
“That’s why we really put so much emphasis on let’s try to win this, win this this year. But honestly, there’s just nothing else I could have done. There’s nothing else. I drove as hard as I could every lap. I didn’t have the speed for the first 20. It was evident in a lot of the restarts we had. It was actually overachieved in quite a few. But that was it.
“I have to live with the result because I can’t change it. Disappointed, absolutely, for sure. But I knew kind of going into today I was going to need the race to go a certain way. If it goes the way it did last year, it goes green out, we’re probably winning.
“But it didn’t.”