And he loves every minute of it.
Certainly, no professional athlete seeks the biting criticism or hateful comments that can come via social media after being involved in controversy – on the track or off – but Hamlin has found a way to turn it into a powerful motivational tool.
He hopes to ride that wave to a career-crowning achievement and capture his first NASCAR Cup Series championship when he battles Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and reigning champion Chase Elliott in Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway.
Asked how he balances the criticism and controversy while preparing for what could be the biggest moment of his career, Hamlin, 40, instead turns the tables.
Controversy not a distraction
“How do I get up every morning and take my kids to school at 7:30 a.m.? How do I go to 23XI Racing to work a couple days in the middle of the week during a playoff run? I live in chaos. My life is chaos and I thrive under chaos,” he said.
“Honestly, you can probably ask Kyle (Larson, one of Hamlin’s good friends), the more (expletive) that’s stirred up around me, the more I come at it. I don’t mind things like that.
“To me, it’s like fuel. I have so much fuel in my tank right now from just motivation. There’s a lot of motivation.”
Twice late in last Sunday’s race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Hamlin got bumped out of way by eventual winner Alex Bowman.
Immediately after the race, to illustrate his displeasure, Hamlin drove his No. 11 Toyota into the middle of Bowman’s frontstretch victory burnout celebration and at one point the two cars faced off nose-to-nose.
Hamlin was drowned in boos from his home state Virginia crowd, which became so loud at one point, he had difficulty hearing questions being asked of him by an NBC Sports reporter.
Hamlin was irate at not just losing the race, but losing the chance to show what his team is capable of to his fellow title contenders.
“I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville. Starting in the back, going to the back again (due to a pit road speeding penalty), driving all the way to the front and winning that race would be like putting the foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right?” he said.
“I feel like that momentum was taken from us. Again, the momentum in head now swings back and around and now I’m ultra-motivated because I just love the feeling of proving people wrong.”
Dealing with the boos
Hamlin also said he doesn’t get bent out of shape from fan response.
“It doesn’t translate to common sense. We were the guys that got wrecked, yet we were booed? I’m confused what’s going on,” he said. “Obviously, people were passionate about their driver, that’s OK.
“But honestly, it doesn’t make any sense in the grand scheme of life as far as what is actually going on. It’s just bitter fans from a decade ago. They just can not get over it.”
Hamlin is referring to the 2017 fall race at Martinsville where he bumped leader Elliott out of the way in the final laps. It would have been Elliott’s first career win and locked him into that season’s Championship 4.
Elliott has gone on to become the sport’s most popular driver and Hamlin has since heard more boos than cheers at many tracks.
Fan reaction is the least of Hamlin’s concerns this weekend.
A Cup championship is pretty much the only missing element from a long and distinguished NASCAR career in which he’s amassed 46 series wins since 2006, including three Daytona 500 victories.
While Hamlin’s season has been overshadowed in large part by Larson’s nine vwins, he did go down-to-wire with Larson for the 2021 regular season championship and has been one of the series’ most consistent drivers this year. He’s won two races but shown to have the capability to win many more.
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have also been very strong this season on the 750 horsepower tracks and Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin’s teammate in the Championship 4, won the spring race at Phoenix.
So, if Hamlin is finally able to ride his wave of motivation to his first Cup title, what does he expect the reaction from the grandstands to be?
“I’m not sure. I’ll be so happy for myself and my team, I really won’t care,” he said. “I know how hard we’ve worked to get here; how hard I’ve worked and all the sacrifices my family has made to get me to this point.
“I’m just going to try to find my family as soon as possible and give them a hug.”