LONG POND, Pennsylvania. – Danny Hamlin’s friends greeted him at the airport with champagne in the shower as soon as he stepped down the ramp of his plane – and hours after he entered the victory lane at Pocono Raceway – in honor of his 50th career NASCAR Cup win.
Let’s put this milestone in perspective.
Yes, with three Daytona 500 wins, a Coca-Cola 600 gem and Southern 500 wins and an expansion in team ownership, Hamlin was already heading into the Hall of Fame.
But 50 wins in cup competitions take him into the air. That’s the NASCAR equivalent of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in baseball, putting Hamlin on the short list of the true elite.
Consider that only 14 other drivers in NASCAR’s 75 years of existence have reached this mark, and all but three are in the Hall of Fame. Of the three outside, Jimmie Johnson is on the ballot this year, and Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are sure to get there.
One caveat: Hamlin and Junior Johnson are the only ones in the 50 Cup Club who don’t have a championship.
Hamlin, 42, is still chasing his first title without spending much time reflecting on his accomplishments.
“When you’re retired and you have plenty of time, you sit on your back porch rocking chair and think, ‘What have I achieved in sports?'” Hamlin said. “These things take a long time to sit. They really do.”
Hamlin could have enjoyed his 50th win earlier this season in Kansas if last year’s Pocono win hadn’t been canceled by NASCAR – he was the first winner to receive a disqualification since 1960 – because his Joe Gibbs Racing team fouled the rules. Thus, he scored 50 points in Pocono, where he scored a record seventh victory. He won his first two Pocono Cup races when he won the season as a rookie in 2005.
It seemed fitting that Hamlin crossed two milestones at Pocono while still in the No. 11 Toyota while still driving for Gibbs. That kind of continuity has been virtually non-existent in NASCAR for nearly 20 years.
“I never thought I’d get an opportunity in the Cup,” Hamlin said. “Fortunately JD Gibbs took a chance and Joe Gibbs took a chance with me almost 20 years ago. To get my 50th win, it all comes down to the track where I got my first one, it’s definitely special.”
Special is one way to describe victory.
Kyle Larson had a few more, mostly unprintable, things to say about this to Hamlin.
Larson, who had already lost a last-lap battle this season to Hamlin in Kansas, seemed ready to race to win at mile 400 at Pocono. Hamlin may have made the slightest contact, causing Larson to crash into the outer wall and giving Hamlin a clear path to the finish line.
Hamlin, who co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, was adamant he never contacted Larson.
Larson insisted that he had been hit and, not very politely, called the move inappropriate, especially since they are good friends.
“I didn’t do that to Danny,” Larson said. “I don’t think I deserve to be confronted before I get to the wall.”
Hey, at least Larson didn’t hurl his helmet at Hamlin in disgust like the crashed Austin Dillon did to Tyler Reddick earlier in the race.
Hamlin slid out of his Toyota and was booed by the sold-out Pocono crowd – the biggest track since 2010 – who thought Denny had done something dirty. Hamlin brushed off the chatter—he’s not a villain, he insisted—and said it was just a tough race around the track.
“We were waiting. We attacked at the right time,” said Hamlin.
Hamlin, long hailed along with Mark Martin as NASCAR’s greatest modern driver who never won a championship, heads to Richmond to chase the 51st and possibly get closer to signing a new contract with Gibbs.
Gibbs, who lost to two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch at the end of last season to Richard Childress Racing and had Martin Truex Jr. talk about his retirement this season, remains confident he can strike a deal that will keep Hamlin on the line after this season.
“We are working on everything at our place,” Gibbs said. We know Danny will be here.
This is where Hamlin wants to stay.
“Not everyone has the opportunity to go from racing late models to racing for Joe Gibbs Racing in 18 months in the Cup Series,” he said. “It’s hard to do, it’s true. But luckily they believed in me, gave me time to get started and the rest is history.”