While a first title is obviously at the very top of his priorities, there are a couple of other big prizes the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota wants to mark off his wish list.
“The next goal would be winning the Brickyard 400, that or the Coke 600,” Hamlin said at the NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I want both of them equally. Those are the two races that I’d like to cross off the important ones on my list for sure.”
Hamlin, 36, has already won the sport’s three other majors with the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. He has 31 career victories and 26 poles, and is the track record holder at BMS with a fast lap of 131.668 mph set in August 2016.
“We’ve been very consistently good, but we obviously need to have a great year,” he said. “We need to have a year like 2010 or ’12 where we win more than five races and contend for championships. With this format, it’s a little bit different because the entire championship is based off one race and not your whole body of work. I think last year we certainly had the correct champion as far as that's concerned. He performed well throughout the entire season.”
While Martin Truex Jr. did capture the win at Homestead, Hamlin isn’t the biggest fan of it coming down to a single race. He believes his team is close to championship form, but just a little off where Truex and his teammate Kyle Busch was last year, calling his team a level 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.
To stay there, they must deal with a changing dynamic at Joe Gibbs Racing this season with Erik Jones replacing Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota. It gives the team a lineup of Busch and Hamlin as series veterans, and Jones and Daniel Suarez as second-year Cup racers. Hamlin was close friends with Kenseth off the track, but believes the young drivers will step up and contribute more in team meetings as the season goes on.
As for Hamlin, he is ready to shed the label of best driver without a title.
“I’m just going to keep grinding as long as I can to try to win a championship, and putting in the hard work,” he said. “My career has been great every year. Sometimes, circumstances work out for you. Dale Earnhardt was the greatest Daytona driver for how many years before the year he was in contention. He just never won. Eventually he kept putting himself up front and in contention, and he won. That’s the way I’m going to keep approaching my career is keep grinding.”
As he’s gotten older, Hamlin appreciates the victories more now. In his mind, the competition is now closer and the wins are now harder to come by. In that regard, he sees the young drivers in NASCAR much like the young talent in professional basketball.
“I think that it's very similar to other sports where I think that Michael Jordan was significantly better than the second-best player in his day,” Hamlin said. “Nowadays the best player in the NBA, I think the second best is very close because they have more information. They have more data. They're starting sooner. And it's no different in racing. These kids are starting way earlier in their racing career than we started, so they’re better. I think the talent pool is better now than it's ever been.”