Denny Hamlin is the NASCAR Cup driver that fans most love to hate, but in many ways, he also personifies the kind of driver that fans most aspire to be: a driver who rose to the top via talent rather than being given a high-profile ride just because he had a lot of money.
In the latter stages of his career as a driver, Hamlin has been engulfed by a complicated contradiction, which he has learned to accept even if he admits he is not quite aware of it.
When young drivers are given access to premium vehicles, especially when they have a sizable sponsorship package or a sizable check from their parents, race spectators groan.
They might or might not also be talented enough to match the wealth, but in NASCAR circles, "earning" rides by moving up the lower-level series is regarded as a sort of rite of passage.
All of it and more can be found in Hamlin's NASCAR experience.
Prior to being found by the late president of Joe Gibbs Racing, J.D. Gibbs, and given the chance to compete in five Truck races and one Xfinity race with their support in 2004, he raced Late Models in Virginia, growing up in cars supported by his family.
"I didn't get anything handed to me. In an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com this week, Hamlin remarked, "I had to work really, really hard for it.
I'm unsure of how many NASCAR drivers currently working did so after working in their father's machine shop as a welder or fabricator.
After 51 victories and over 17 years since his full-time switch to Cup, Hamlin, now 42, is still just as competitive as ever. His transfer was supported by Fortune 500 business FedEx.
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The most hated driver in NASCAR?
But victory No. 51, which occurred Saturday night at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, served as a reminder that Hamlin has fallen out of favor with NASCAR fans in a relatively short amount of time.
For one night at least, it was evident that while Chase Elliott is the most well-liked driver in NASCAR, Hamlin has now taken the position of least-liked driver.
And what probably infuriates his "haters" even more is the fact that Hamlin is genuinely enjoying himself.
When it came to who fans loved or didn't like, Hamlin claimed that he was "really just sort of a middle-of-the-road guy." "Back in the day, there were really well-liked drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., but as soon as they retired, people wanted to support the opposition, right?"
"So Joey did it for a time. However, I believe I have recently got track material that has really propelled it while he hasn't. At the moment, I'm kind of the heel.
The Elusive championship
Fans believe they know what Hamlin's kryptonite would be if he were Superman.
The one obvious gap from the driver's otherwise impressive resume—a Cup series championship—is something fans love to point out to him.
Hamlin is continually reminded that he has never won a championship, no matter how well he performs, how many victories he accumulates, or how many times he has triumphed against all the odds.
They have no other options, therefore they depend on that. According to Hamlin, they essentially don't have any other choices.
Without a shadow of a doubt, if we compete head-to-head in the same car with same conditions, I will prevail. However, it isn't the game we play.Driving is a team sport, thus there are many variables that are out of your control. Not a solo act either.
And don't think for a second that Hamlin believes that anything—not even the jeers—will change if 2023 truly is the year that he captures his first series championship.
They already don't like me, so even if I win the next two or three in a row, it won't change their minds, said Hamlin. And that's fine.In no way do I think it will silence them. Since they are, in essence, in misery, they will simply move on to something else to think about. They don't have anything else to gripe about. I feel incredibly confident in everything I've accomplished.
The only legitimate defense they have is that there is "no championship." Tell me more about that. Describe that in further detail. So, do you think I'm not good enough? I'm not a skilled enough driver? That is so absurd.If that's your sole defense against me, you're just demonstrating your ignorance.