Denny Hamlin is 42, but he's not going anywhere, and that's a good thing -- NASCAR needs him

You can hate Denny Hamlin all you want. If you are a NASCAR fan, you can boo him. If you are a fellow NASCAR competitor, you can feud with him. If you are a NASCAR official, you can penalize and fine him every Wednesday following every race and every podcast.

But all of the above -- especially NASCAR itself -- needs Denny Hamlin. In fact, the sport could use a few more Denny Hamlins.

Think about it. This is an era when the collective fan base says that the garage is devoid of strong personalities and drivers willing to speak their minds before first checking with sponsors and bosses. Hamlin is clearly not asking anyone for permission before he faces any microphones, be it in the media centers of racetracks or in the recording studio to lay down another shocking episode of his still-new "Actions Detrimental" podcast. And he clearly isn't having any Zoom calls with any marketing and PR advisers -- what public figures like to call "my team" -- before hitting "send" on his tweets.

This is a time when we often hear that today's racers don't have the same DNA as the demigods of days gone by, that this bunch of softies would never be willing to issue any chrome horn justice like Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough and name-your-Hall-of-Famer used to do it. Then Denny Hamlin openly admits that he has done exactly that, and more than once.

This is also a time when the sport is beginning a generational shift, as happens every 15 years or so. When those cycles inevitably begin, there is also unstoppable feeling of sentimentality among those who love the sport.

Hamlin, the one-time wunderkind, is now 42 years old, in his 17th full-time Cup Series season. He has hinted that he is much closer to the end of his driving career than people likely realize, a run that began with a stunning first year at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2006, when he went from a largely unheard of Virginia short track racer to earning a spot in NASCAR's postseason as a rookie, racing against Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the title.

Whenever he does decide to hang up his helmet, though, that doesn't mean he is going away. Instead, he is already doubling down on the next phase of his NASCAR career.

It is no secret there has been much concern about what stock car racing's team ownership roster will look like in the coming decades as the titans who have dominated the sport since the 1980s begin aging out. As the sanctioning body has worked to create interest among would-be team investors (see: franchising), Hamlin has sunk millions of dollars into the creation of 23XI Racing. And during a time when the sport has finally gotten real traction in its efforts to diversify the makeup of those who work in the garage, it's been Hamlin who has taken the lead in those efforts, recruiting the most famous athlete of the 20th century, Michael Jordan, to come on board, and putting Bubba Wallace behind the wheel of their No. 23 Toyota.

It was at the beginning of that team's first season, the winter of 2021, when I talked with Hamlin at length one afternoon over the telephone. He told me that he was standing outside of the still-unfinished race shop, with the Daytona 500 only a few weeks away. He'd just had a chat with the concrete company that was pouring a section of the shop floor. Then he apologized for needing to hang up, but he was headed to pick up his two girls from school.

"Can you believe this is the kind of stuff I do now?" he said. "Be honest, McGee. This is not where you saw me headed when we first met, is it?"

Oh, hell no. Not a chance. It was September 2006, the eve of his first postseason appearance. It was still called "the Chase" back then and only 10 drivers made the cut for the title fight. The regular-season finale was at Richmond International Raceway, where Hamlin started on the pole and finished 11th.

He was 25 years old. My assignment was to follow him around in the days leading up to the start of the Chase. NASCAR had sent the other nine established stars all over the country to do national media and hype the postseason. They sent the rookie nowhere. So, while Gordon and Dale Jr. were yucking it up with Letterman and Leno, what was Hamlin doing? Going to Great Clips for a $12 trim ("Yeah! A free haircut on my next visit!"), picking up his preordered Madden 2007 from GameStop and then taking me and a photographer back to his modest suburban home where he gamed online in the bonus room. On the floor in the corner of that room, right on the carpet, sat his trophies from that year's wins in the Bud Shootout at Daytona and two victories at Pocono Raceway.

If I'm being honest, my impression at the time was that I thought the guy I followed around that week was going to flame out. Over the course of three days, I watched him purchase a 10,500-square-foot home on the lake for a few million dollars and then walk around that house with an interior decorator, spending another six figures on changes, including painting the inside of the pool and converting the wine cellar into a beer cooler. He also bought a new plane that week. All I could think was, "Damn, this dude has only won two points races. Can you buy a house and a jet after winning only two points races?"

He could sense that from me. It was the first time I realized his fantastic ability to read people, a talent he still uses to either sign them on as an ally or to push their buttons.

"You have to understand something about me," he explained in comments that I recently dug up in my notes from that week. "This is September 2006 and we just raced at Richmond. You know where I was in September 2004? I was sitting in the grandstand at Richmond. No way I am supposed to be here right now."

He told me about growing up a short drive from that racetrack, the same place that NASCAR visits this weekend. He remembered standing in line to get the autograph of his hero, Bill Elliott (father of Chase Elliott, he of Hamlin's highest-profile feud). Then he told me about the financial strain of his racing dreams, how his mother sold her car to underwrite his move from karts to stock cars. Selling himself to local legend and Virginia short track team owner Jim Dean. Wheeling his way through an audition for J.D. Gibbs, son of Joe, and Gibbs' partner in a new diversity and talent search program, NFL Hal of Famer Reggie White. Then J.D. Gibbs going to bat for him when FedEx wanted a veteran in its race car, not a guy it'd never heard of, a no-name with zero wins in 35 starts in the Truck and Xfinity series.

"So, you know what, man?" Hamlin said to me that day, standing alongside the Lear 31A he was about to ditch for an upgrade, posing for the Rolling Stone photographer we'd flown in for the story. "If I want to bet on me, that's what the hell I am going to do."

At the end of our time together, he asked me for my honest impression of what I had seen. I told him I had seen it before. He was already standing at a classic professional athlete crossroads. Either he would keep doing what he was doing or what he was doing would end up doing him in. I told him that every racer I had covered, when they got to where he was, either figured out how to stay true to who they were no matter what or they became total a--holes.

I had forgotten about that conversation. He brought it back up more than a decade later, on Feb. 17, 2019. We were standing in Victory Lane, where he had just won his second Daytona 500 in four years. He's added another since, the anchors of a racing résumé that includes 48 wins, ranked 16th all time. Regardless of whether he ever wins that elusive Cup Series championship, he will have a fast pass to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The celebration that night in '19 was extra emotional because J.D. Gibbs had died just five weeks earlier. Hamlin and I talked about that, and then we talked about that week in 2006, joking that he'd come a long way since the Huntersville Great Clips and those trophies sitting on the bonus room floor.

"Well, what did I end up doing?" he asked. I paused, not knowing what he was referring to. "Did I stay true to myself or did I become an a--hole?"

Honestly? A little bit of both. The perfect mix of both. Just the right recipe that has created the Denny Hamlin you don't have to love, his rivals don't have to like, and NASCAR will always have to deal with as a driver now and as an owner for years to come. He's not going anywhere. And that's good. Because NASCAR needs Denny Hamlin.