It’s not very often that a NASCAR driver is emotional after a fourth-place finish.
But for Denny Hamlin, Sunday’s Advent Health 400 at Kansas Speedway marked a momentous victory that brought tears to his eyes.
Hamlin enjoyed a strong run for himself and even looked like he had the speed to run with the leaders towards the end of the race. After dropping to the rear for unapproved adjustments, Hamlin steadily worked his way through the field.
Despite being sent to the back twice for equipment interference penalties, the No. 11 Sports Clips Camry consistently thundered its way through the field. Hamlin looked unphased by the adversity and set his sights on prevailing his way to a strong finish. By the end of Stage Two, Hamlin had made his way to eighth place to earn stage points.
Hamlin ran comfortably in the top 10 for the rest of the race before settling into his finishing position of fourth place following the final restart. The strong run was much-needed for Hamlin as it is only his second top 5 (and top 10) of the season.
While his win at Richmond Raceway earlier in the year solved his concerns about making the playoffs, a run like Sunday's is a step in the right direction for Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team. Outside of the win, Hamlin has endured one of his most underwhelming seasons to date and a strong top-5 finish like at Kansas is a necessary shot in the arm if he intends to right the ship in time for the playoffs.
After the race, Hamlin seemed satisfied with his result despite the tribulations as he said, “Finally. It wasn’t a day – I mean we went to the back three times. I just never could get an opportunity to get up there and show the speed, but once I was there, I just couldn’t get past the aero side of it. We were all a freight train at the top, and that’s all I had. Our Sport Clips Camry was fast. We had to go to the back three times and that is not ideal, but I just want to think about the positives today.”
Even though he did not emerge victorious as a driver, Hamlin still left the race a winner. The Cup team he co-owns, 23XI Racing, took its first win of the season when Kurt Busch took the checkered flag. In a car decorated with co-owner Michael Jordan’s iconic elephant print design, Busch’s win held far more meaning than playoff implications for the up-and-coming race team.
After Bubba Wallace got the team their first win last October at Talladega in a rain-shortened race, 23XI has faced immense struggles ever since. With the challenge of expanding to a two-car team at the start of the season, coupled with the difficulties of adjusting to the Gen 7 car, Hamlin and Jordan’s second year as team owners has been marred with growing pains all year.
Up until this win, it seems like anything that could go wrong has gone wrong for 23XI racing. Neither Busch nor his teammate, Bubba Wallace, entered Kansas in the top-15 in points, and their poor showings have largely been out of the driver’s control so far this year. Whether bad luck or poor execution, the amount of obstacles that have denied the team of quality runs has made races painful to watch for their fans.
Despite all the disappointment prior to this race, the struggles are what made Busch’s win so meaningful for Hamlin and the rest of his 23XI team. Prior to his post-race interview with Fox Sports, Hamlin walked to Busch’s car to share an emotional moment with his driver. Once Hamlin stuck his head in the window, an ecstatic Busch yelled, “We did it! We did it!” as the two shook hands and embraced each other.
When Hamlin returned to his interview, he emerged from Busch’s car with tears in his eyes. He could not hide his pride in how the team that he co-created managed to overcome so much adversity to secure their first win of the season. The moment will forever stand as one of 23XI’s monumental triumphs and it could not be more fitting that it came with co-owner Michael Jordan’s logo on the hood of the car.
After the race, Hamlin reflected on the victory, saying, “It’s huge. I’m so proud of Kurt (Busch) and Bubba (Wallace) as well. Bubba deserved to have a shot at a win today as well. It was so much better than that (Wallace finished 10th). Mistakes, and we are working on it, and that’s something I felt like I’ve let these guys down with is – pit road. It’s just part of it. It’s growing pains, but this is what this team is capable of. I’m happy for Kurt.”
Hamlin is right, the pit crews for 23XI have been dreadful and have played a huge role in the team’s struggles. However, in racing, winning cures everything.
Wallace’s setbacks on pit road are a reminder that the team has a long way to become a championship caliber team. But for this week, the team stands alone at the top. If Hamlin’s reaction was any indication, the team will cherish this moment for a long time to come.
The hard-earned win erased a season of pain, if even for a moment. The team has worked tirelessly to prove their belonging at the Cup Series level and the fruits of their labor are starting to show.
From Hamlin and Jordan to Busch and Wallace, along with all the members that work to make this dream happen, Sunday’s race at Kansas is the moment of triumph they’ve been waiting for all season.