How Denny Hamlin Became NASCAR’s Most Polarizing Driver

How Denny Hamlin Became NASCAR’s Most Polarizing Driver

Denny Hamlin, the three-time Daytona 500 champion who is entering his 19th full season in the NASCAR Cup Series and has won 51 races in his standout career, has rightfully earned a reputation as a brash, outspoken driver who sparks the most boos on the circuit. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m playing basketball, pickleball, or whatever, if I can’t talk sh-t, then I just feel mortal,” Hamlin tells TIME in a phone interview a few days before the 66th running of the Daytona 500, the Great American Race, on February 18. “I feel vulnerable. So I use it to help get into the other competitors’ heads and make them believe I am the best and you’re not going to beat me. It’s my superpower. I do believe I have humility in certain situations. I just do not want to let anyone see that humility.” 

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So as an expert smack-talker, Hamlin—who famously is missing a championship season on his otherwise Hall of Fame-caliber resume—had to respect the dart thrown by his longtime girlfriend, Jordan Fish, on Instagram when the couple announced their engagement on January 1. (The couple have two daughters, 11 and 6, together.) Fish wrote, under a picture of the happy couple kissing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico:

“Rings: DH 0, Jordan 1.”

Sick burn, right?  

“Listen, if you want to give her the credit, that’s fine,” says Hamlin. “But I actually came up with that caption. I love picking on myself. Nobody will make fun of me more than I’m willing to make fun of myself. I’m comfortable in my own skin. God, I’d love to have a championship. But I can promise you it’s not going to affect me one way or the other if it doesn’t happen.”

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Hamlin, 43, enters this NASCAR campaign with a higher profile than ever. Already the second-winningest active full-time driver, behind Kyle Bush (63 Cup victories), host of the podcast Actions Detrimental, and a team owner, along with Michael Jordan, of 23XI Racing (23 is Jordan’s number, and Hamlin drives the No. 11 car for Joe Gibbs Racing), he’s also the main character of a new Netflix series, Full Speed, which debuted on January 30 and spent its premiere week as Netflix’s ninth-most viewed TV show globally, attracting 1.5 million views. The show is NASCAR’s attempt at replicating the success of another Netflix series Drive to Survive, which gave Formula One an uptick in popularity and helped attract a younger generation of fans. Hamlin is already feeling Netflix’s reach. He has noticed, for example, a rise in social media followers from New Zealand.

All the while, Hamlin has gained notoriety as NASCAR’s most polarizing driver—and most prominent heel. It’s a characterization he embraces, full throttle. “While I’m not NASCAR’s most popular driver or probably even in the top five, you’re not going to argue that when they call my name this weekend, where does the most noise come from?” Hamlin says. “It could be good or bad, it doesn’t matter. It’s noise. It makes someone feel a certain way for a certain reason. So I’ve just embraced that. Hey, I’d love to have you on my bandwagon. But if not, I don’t care. Get the f-ck off it. I didn’t want you anyway.”

Hamlin’s heel turn began in earnest last July, at the 400 at Pocono Raceway. There, Hamlin dueled with Kyle Larson, the 2021 Cup Series champ and a popular driver. Larson felt that Hamlin, who won the race, forced him into the wall. He was furious with Hamlin afterward. Hamlin pointed out that his car never touched Larson’s. “After that, every time I would get intro’d, the boos just got louder,” Hamlin says. “Then all of a sudden, I’m waving the fans on. ‘That’s all you’ve got?’” After Hamlin won the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in September, the jeers grew so loud he couldn’t hear himself think during the post-race interview. “Hey,” he said to the crowd. “I beat your favorite driver.” The interviewer asked, “Who would that be?”

“All of them,” he replied. 

“I’m, like, trying to get them to settle down,” Hamlin says. “And all I did was rile them up.” 

Hamlin anticipates that fans will shout obscenities at him on Sunday. “I appreciate it, because it’s fandom, it’s sports,” says Hamiln. “LeBron comes into a home area, people boo the sh-t out of him. He makes them feel a certain way. They may say he sucks, but they know better. I think that that’s the case with me.”

(Just pointing out, for the record, that, yes, Hamlin compared himself to LeBron James.)

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Full Speed presents a fuller portrait of Hamlin that moves beyond his tough talk and spats with other drivers. Viewers meet his mom and dad, Dennis and Mary Lou, who worked in a trailer shop and for AAA, respectively. Hamlin started racing go-kart when he was 7. They went into debt to support Hamlin’s racing career, taking out second and third mortgages on their Chesterfield, Va., home. They sold their classic cars so he could race on dirt tracks. The Hamlins were a few missed payments away from losing their house when Denny, then in his early 20s, decided he’d just work at his father’s shop. But a race-team owner overheard Hamlin talking about his plan and offered to sponsor him. He knew Hamlin had talent and often beat drivers who had better cars. Soon Joe Gibbs Racing discovered him. In 2005, when he was 24, he ran his first Cup series race in the No. 11 car.

“He made my whole life,” Dennis Hamlin says in the series. “He’s my heartbeat.” He holds up a cigar, encased in a box, that Michael Jordan gave him. “Break it when we win the championship,” Jordan wrote.

“I’d give you everything I own, every car in this garage, the house, whatever, if I can make that happen,” Dennis says. 

This scene made Hamlin emotional. “It got me,” he says. “I’ve probably made more calls and seen my dad more in the last few weeks than I have in the last few months.” Dennis suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). He often calls his son in a panic these days, saying he feels like he’s drowning, that he has no air. “Knowing that he’s probably got a couple of years left at the best, it’s tough,” says Hamlin. “I want him to be able to have that moment. With Michael and me and the grandkids and all that. I want it for other people more than I want it for myself.”

Hamlin approached Gibbs executives a few years back to inquire about an ownership stake in the team. They preferred to keep it a family business. Hamlin, a Charlotte Hornets season-ticket holder, had gotten to know Jordan during his ownership tenure with the Hornets. They started their own racing team, 23XI Racing, which made its debut in 2021 with Bubba Wallace driving the No. 23 car. But Hamlin continues to drive for Gibbs—a 23XI competitor, though both teams share the same manufacturer, Toyota. While the thought of, say, LeBron playing for the Los Angeles Lakers while having a financial interest in the Boston Celtics is absurd, this conflict of interest has happened in NASCAR before. Dale Earnhardt Sr., before his tragic death in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, raced for Richard Childress Racing while owning his own team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

The Netflix series shows Hamlin spending Monday of race week checking in on his competition at 23XI. Though it’s difficult to call 23XI competition when Hamlin owns the team, right? “It’s complicated,” Hamlin admits. While he wants 23XI drivers to do well, he’s not sharing too much insight with Wallace and the other 23XI driver, Tyler Reddick. “Most of my coaching happens in the offseason,” says Hamlin. “Once the season gets going, especially the playoffs, I kind of shut down to them a little bit. I don’t feed them all the information I’ve got. God knows, talk about a thorn in my side, is my team getting a championship before me. That would suck.”

Wallace and Reddick and Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates—including Ty Gibbs, the boss’ grandson, making things ever more complicated—shouldn’t expect much help on Sunday. Coming off a win at an exhibition race, The Clash, in Los Angeles a few weeks back, Hamlin’s feeling especially confident entering this year’s Daytona. Only two legendary drivers have won more than three Daytonas: Richard Petty, aka “The King” (7) and Cale Yarborough (4). 

Hamlin’s eager to join this pantheon. “Over the last few years, I’ve been instructed to push my teammates, push Toyota cars,” says Hamlin. “Teamwork wins. That’s bullsh-t, in my opinion. I’m just going to do whatever’s best for me. Because if Toyota wants to win, they just need to hop on and enjoy the show.”

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