Victor and villain: Denny Hamlin keeps winning despite new role as NASCAR's most polarizing driver

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Denny Hamlin, centro, celebra despus de ganar la carrera de la Copa NASCAR Series, el domingo 17 de marzo de 2024, en Bristol, Tennessee. (AP Foto/Wade Payne)

Denny Hamlin was booed in celebration again.

The Joe Gibbs Racing superstar, a driver whose 52 wins in the Cup Series rank as the 13th most in NASCAR history, heard another heaping of disapproval and contempt when he climbed from his No. 11 Toyota at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday.

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Victor and villain.

Hamlin stopped short of egging the hostile crowd on this time, though. After winning his second consecutive victory at the famed short track — his fourth overall inside the concrete coliseum — Hamlin skipped his catchphrase “I just beat your favorite driver” and simply flashed his index finger in every direction to remind everyone who finished No. 1.

Surely some of his detractors responded with a different finger.

It’s become the surreal norm for Hamlin and shows no signs of quieting even as he continues to rise NASCAR’s all-time win chart. Hamlin has Hall of Famers Lee Petty (54) and Rusty Wallace (55) within reach this season and has closed the gap on Kyle Busch (63) for the most wins by an active driver.

He may already have surpassed Busch as the most hated driver in the garage.

“I don’t mind it. I really don’t because it’s just noise,” Hamlin said before the race. “There were many moments mid-career where there was just claps; that’s just not a needle mover one way or the other. A lot of it comes with success as well. If you are a contender each and every week, you are going to get more noise typically.”

The “noise” seems to be getting louder, and Hamlin knows why. He’s had altercations with two of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, the first coming in 2017 with Chase Elliott and the latest coming last year with Kyle Larson.

Hamlin first drew a strong negative reaction seven years ago at his hometown track in Martinsville, Virgina, after he wrecked Elliott in a playoff race. It knocked Elliott out of contention for the championship the following week.

Hamlin seemed to reignite those memories last May when he publicly and loudly called for Elliott to be suspended after Elliott intentionally wrecked him in the Coca-Cola 600. NASCAR did, and fans blamed Hamlin even though the punishment was in line with similar altercations.

Back in the public crosshairs, Hamlin forced Larson up the track and into the wall at Pocono Raceway last July while they battled for the lead with less than 10 laps to go. Hamlin went on to win and was loudly booed after exiting his car on the frontstretch.

“I have had so many altercations with so many popular drivers, and that just kind of fuels it as well,” Hamlin said. “I’ve checked all of the boxes of the things that fans despise. We’ve seen a previous driver (Busch) at Joe Gibbs Racing, he just changes teams and he’s more liked.

“When you’ve got all the things that I’ve got in that box in the negativity checked, you are just going to have to live that life.”

Actor/professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson offered Hamlin some advice at the season-opening Daytona 500. Johnson, the grand marshal, told Hamlin to lean into the villain role like Johnson has in his return to the WWE.

“The rare air is when you have the opportunity and you grab it by the throat and you don’t let it go and that’s the opportunity to be a great bad guy,” Johnson said.

The best bad guys win, and Hamlin did that Sunday for the 21st time in the last six seasons — more than anyone else in the series over that span.

Hamlin’s latest win was a gem. He led 47 of the final 48 laps in a tire-management race dominated by JGR. The four-car team — which includes Martin Truex Jr., Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell — combined to lead 383 of 500 laps at the bullring track nicknamed “The Last Great Colosseum.”

“That’s what I grew up doing here in the short tracks of the whole mid-Atlantic,” Hamlin said. “South Boston, Martinsville. Once it became a tire-management race, I liked our chances.”

And Hamlin ended up in victory lane holding a sword, a fitting trophy for a villain who suddenly finds himself under attack after wins.


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