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Strong 2019 Cup Series Season Shifts Hamlin Toward Higher Goals in 2020

This time last year, Denny Hamlin was coming off the worst season of his career. He went winless for the first time during his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career, and his top-five finishes and laps led were near career lows.

And then he won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race.

Hamlin turned the motivation from one of his worst seasons in 2018 to one of his best in 2019. Hamlin’s six wins, 19 top-five finishes and 24 top-10 finishes rank at the top of his career statistics. Only one other season has Hamlin visited victory lane more – eight times in 2010.

The NASCAR Cup Series competition should watch out, because Hamlin expects much of the same in NASCAR in 2020. And he expects to be better.

“There’s a lot of things that were really going well in 2019,” he said. “I’m looking forward to knowing that things will be kind of the same (in 2020) since the rules will be similar and development things are on hold with the new car coming. I’m pretty confident that between myself and my crew chief, we’ll be strong, for sure. We won some big races and a lot of races. I don’t see that stopping any time in the near future.”

Hamlin said after the 2018 season he thought it was an average, successful year. He felt like he came close to winning some races, and that was enough. He noted that he felt he should have won the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, “but things didn’t work out for whatever reason.”

But after the 2019 season ended in November, he had time to reflect. He said he realized how “awful” his 2018 season was and that the 2019 performance should be the standard for success at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I thought after 2018, ‘Well, we didn’t win, but we were competitive in a bunch of races,’ but after 2019, I realize this is the standard,” he said. “You’ve got to run like this all the time. I think after having a bounce-back year like we had this year, it definitely makes you look back at the years that weren’t successful thinking that you need to raise your bar even higher.”

Hamlin and his No. 11 team, including crew chief Chris Gabehart, raised the bar in 2019. But he said there is still room for the bar to climb higher in 2020. Specifically, he has a championship in mind.

Hamlin translated his stellar 2019 performance into a championship race appearance at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he faced off against teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., as well as Kevin Harvick. A pit road miscue prevented Hamlin from winning the championship, and he finished fourth overall in the standings.

It was the third time Hamlin has been in contention for the championship at the end of the season, only to falter and go home empty-handed. The loss sparked conversation that maybe Hamlin will never win a championship and that he could be “the greatest never to win a title.”

Hamlin said after the championship loss last season, he has come to the belief everything happens for a reason. He didn’t win the title in 2010 or 2014, and that’s fine. He wasn’t supposed to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2019, either.

He can’t change the outcome. Because of that, Hamlin has grown to accept the past and not dwell on events out of his control.

“I just haven’t dug too deep into it. I can’t go back,” he said. “If I know more, maybe it just makes me feel crappy for a half a day or a day. I don’t care. I can’t go back and fix it. I feel like I’ve done as much as I can do, except for 2010. Things just haven’t worked out for me yet.”

Hamlin said even though last season was successful, it was also a learning year. He learned how to better identify his weaknesses and improve them. He also learned to accept that while fans see the successes, they never see the work and struggle that goes into the success, and that is fine.

Hamlin will shift his Daytona 500 title defense into high gear Sunday during the 62nd Annual Daytona 500 on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX) where he looks to win it for the third time and become the first driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500’s since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95.

Bouncing back from his worst season led to a career-best performance. Only time will tell what kind of momentum a career-best season can create.

Tickets are on-sale now for the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line event weekend, which includes a revamped July Fourth weekend schedule, the Driven2SaveLives BC39 Powered by NOS Energy Drink, FGL Fest and the Pennzoil 150 at the Brickyard NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

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