Denny Hamlin needed only one thing to go his way on Sunday – and that was getting a win at ISM Raceway – if he wanted to keep his hopes for his first career championship alive.
After a late caution, Hamlin would be tasked with defending Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney off of a restart with three laps remaining.
The 38-year old handled it with ease, winning the race and now riding a wave of momentum going into the NASCAR Cup Series championship on Sunday.
“I can’t believe it,” Hamlin told NASCAR.com following Phoenix. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve to be there. I put them in a bad hole last week.”
This is one of the best spots that Hamlin has been in going into the final race of the year, in what has been a career-defining season.
in 2010, he put the No. 11 into victory lane eight times – a career best – and entered Miami with a 15-point lead, according to racing reference, before surrendering the title to Jimmie Johnson.
Hamlin said this season feels similar to that one.
“It feels different than last year, for sure,” Hamlin said after Phoenix. “This is very similar to 2010 in the sense of the car speed we’ve had this season. There’s similarities, for sure. But it is very different. I think this is a tighter-knit group of guys. I think [crew chief Chris Gabehart] takes a lot of pride in assembling this group of guys from top to bottom.”
Hamlin started the round off with a P4 finish at Martinsville before crashing and settling for a P28 at Texas.
He shouldered a lot of the blame and was admittedly feeling gloomy about the result.
That changed after a text that Gabehart sent to Hamlin.
I mean, I mentally put myself in a position where I don’t want to go out here and get crushed when we go out here and finish second, have a great day, and we don’t make the final four,” Hamlin said. “That’s still a pretty damn good day. It’s more on my shoulders, it’s my fault, what happened in Texas. So I have to take the load for that. But the biggest thing he always keeps pushing, is that, We’re here to win, we’re not going to settle for anything other than winning.”
On Sunday, he’ll be knotted up with Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Whoever crosses the start/finish line first takes home the title.
Fans can wager on the race through sites like ComeOn Betting with odds on each of the four drivers.
Hamlin, who is celebrating his birthday this week, is going to take a different approach then he did in 2010.
“I’m going to enjoy the moment [this time],” Hamlin said. “All you can ask for at the start of the year is ask for an opportunity for a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete. It’s goal accomplished. Now we just got to go out there and do it.”
Hamlin has four top five finishes at Homestead and has started on the pole in three of the last four seasons.
This time around he’s taking things in a much more laid back fashion.
“I remember the day before the race saying, ‘No, guys, I can’t do anything, I need to get a good night’s rest,’ this, that and the other,” Hamlin said. “I went to bed way, way earlier than what I should have. Really just overthought it. I’m not going to overthink it this time. I’m just going to do my thing and have fun and enjoy the moment. We are definitely on house money right now, so let’s enjoy it.”
The championship race will begin at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC.