Why Latest Comments From Top Toyota Executive Aren’t Comforting Denny Hamlin Fans Because of What Happened Last Year

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Denny Hamlin on grid.

A year ago, Denny Hamlin watched his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch go through a stress-filled free agency for much of the season, ending with the two-time champion leaving after 15 years and joining Richard Childress Racing. 

This year, Hamlin is the free agent. This week, a top Toyota executive expressed confidence that the three-time Daytona 500 champion would return to the organization in 2024. Those words should be comforting to fans of the No. 11, but based on what was said and what happened last year with the driver of the No. 18, they can’t be certain.  

Toyota expected Kyle Busch to return in 2023

Last year, Kyle Busch surprised everyone in April at Talladega when he was asked about his future with JGR, and he didn’t have an answer and instead twice directed reporters to ask owner Joe Gibbs.

Both team and Toyota officials openly expressed confidence that Busch would be back in the No. 18 in 2023. 

“We’ve been very close to Kyle for years and years and years, and some of that relationship, to be candid, has been born through trials that we’ve gone through together and through controversy that we’ve gone through together,” Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said in May. “We’ve had some really tough times with Kyle Busch but we also are sitting on two championships and in celebrating recently our 1,500 starts across the three national series.

“I’ll pull this up, because I keep the stat handy all the time: One driver has accounted for 36% of our total wins across all three series, and you know who that driver is. It’s just amazing. So any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment — for us and for Coach Gibbs and the family.”

But Wilson wasn’t done. A few minutes later, he reiterated his belief that Busch would return in 2023 under the JGR and Toyota umbrella.  

“If nothing else, I can’t envision any other scenario. Any other scenario is just unacceptable,” Wilson said. 

Toyota expects Denny Hamlin to return in 2024

Denny Hamlin is in his 18th full-time season with JGR. He’s the second-winningest driver at Toyota behind Busch. He’s in the final year of his latest contract. Like his teammate said last year, the 42-year-old wants to stay with JGR and Toyota, especially with his 23XI Racing team also aligned with the manufacturer. 

This week, Wilson addressed Hamlin’s situation, and it didn’t sound too different from what he had to say a year earlier.

“We’re working through some details, and it’s a complicated consideration because now he’s not just a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s also a team owner,” Wilson said. “And given that there has to be alignment for Toyota and Denny across both those considerations, (we) just have some stuff that we’re working on, but we’ll get them sorted out.

“I know Denny has always wanted to and intends to retire as a driver from Joe Gibbs Racing and continue as a team owner with Toyota. That’s certainly our intent, and we’re working very vigorously to make sure that, in fact, happens.”

Interestingly, Wilson also brought up the tough times in the past with Hamlin as he did with Busch.

“Denny plays a huge role in our family, and I think both Tyler [Gibbs, general manager TRD] and I have really enjoyed watching his maturation,” the Toyota exec said. “Not just as a driver, not just as a team owner, obviously, because he’s very new to that, but as a human being and as a person.

“I’m really proud of that because let’s face it, 15 years ago, it was difficult to have a conversation about the weather with Denny while you’re standing on the grid next to him. But he’s come a long way. I know he put out his goal of 60 wins in the Cup Series. From my perspective that is absolutely achievable given his level of talent and his determination.”

Hamlin may very well return to JGR in 2024. But that’s the same thing Busch and his fans thought last year. Toyota and JGR officials also strongly believed it was going to happen. And we all know how that went.

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