Sunday’s loss in the championship race at Phoenix Raceway seemed to hit Hamlin a little harder. Yes, he’s 40 years old and with fewer and fewer seasons remaining in his career, future title opportunities may be limited.
But the Cup Series’ move to a new car next season also puts all drivers – young or old – in a situation of almost starting over.
“This is the last generation of this car that I took a very good liking to over the last three years,” Hamlin said. “We don’t know what the Next Gen car brings. We don’t know will our team be as good. Like there’s just many, many question marks that happens after this.
“That’s why we really put so much emphasis on let’s try to win this, win this this year. But honestly, there’s just nothing else I could have done. There’s nothing else. I drove as hard as I could every lap.
“I didn’t have the speed for the first 20 (laps). It was evident in a lot of the restarts we had. I think we actually overachieved in quite a few.”
As Sunday’s race wound down, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., was leading the race but Hamlin was slowly running him down for the lead.
However, a caution for a broken brake rotor on the track on Lap 283 of 312 sent all the lead-lap cars down pit road for new tires.
Larson just edged Hamlin off pit road – picking up three spots and moving into the lead when the race restarted on Lap 289.
For the final 23 laps, Larson fought off repeated challenges from Martin Truex Jr. to earn his 10th win of the season and the series title. Hamlin ended up third, 1.193 seconds behind Larson.
“I have to live with the result because I can’t change it. Disappointed, absolutely, for sure. But I knew kind of going into today I was going to need the race to go a certain way,” Hamlin said.
“If it goes the way it did last year, it goes green out (to the finish), we’re probably winning. But it didn’t. We knew that our percentage was low, and that was the case.
“Many of these races come down to green-white checkers or shootouts at the end, and that just wasn’t our strength and hasn’t been ever.”
Hamlin ended the year third in the final series standings – the third consecutive season he’s advanced to the Championship 4 and failed to win the title.