By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
Every year, the Daytona 500 is one of the year’s most wild and unpredictable motor races. And though the race has given the competitors every wild card in the deck, Denny Hamlin has come out victorious the last two years.
Now looking toward the 2021 Daytona 500 on February 14, Hamlin is eying to become the first driver in the 63-year history of the event to win it three consecutive times.
Once just a childhood hope and dream for the now-40-year-old is now an opportunity to rise above every racecar driver to ever compete in the Great American Race. Quiet a surreal feat, says Hamlin.
“It would be by far the biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything,” Hamlin said Friday.
Returning to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 15th straight season in the NASCAR Cup Series, Hamlin is more poised for success than ever before. Coming off his most competitive back-to-back seasons in his career (13 wins and 37 top-five finishes in 2019-2020), it all starts with a Daytona 500 win.
Winning it for the second time in 2019, Hamlin backed up the crown with a third last year when contact between leaders Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney gave Hamlin the edge at the checkered flag. He became just the sixth driver to score a third Daytona 500 victory.
Furthermore, Hamlin’s finishes have proven this upward trend. From 2006-2011, Hamlin failed to finish in the top 10 in the 500. Since then, he has scored seven top-five finishes in the race, including six in the last seven years.
Following years of struggle on the high banks of Daytona, Hamlin finds pride in turning around his Daytona reputation.
“I never would have imagined that we’d be in this position by any means, especially five years ago when we didn’t have any [Daytona 500 wins],” he said. “I always think about, in these situations and anytime you get asked, I think about all the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn’t make the right decision.”
Stop playing with my emotions https://t.co/7w7sWTSmdX
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) January 31, 2021
Though Hamlin’s experience has improved since his Daytona 500 debut in 2006, the competition has gone the other direction. Higher speeds, closer drafting, more attrition and much, much more are involved in finishing a Daytona 500 nowadays, let alone beating 39 drivers to the 200th lap.
“I think [the race] is harder than it ever has been,” he said. “I mean, go back and watch races from 2004, 2005. There were just five or six superior cars that could pull away from the pack, cars were strung out more, you didn’t have as much attrition as what you have now. It is truly, in my mind, harder to win now because the field is closer. The chances of you getting in wrecks are higher and everyone’s car is so close. It’s very, very difficult.
“I just think that it is a skill game. But sometimes you get unlucky in that skill game. And there are a lot of guys that are very, very good on the superspeedways that just have been very, very unlucky in the last few years. We’ve been fortunate, we’ve been on the other side of it. That hammer hasn’t hit on us yet, but I mean, we could break out of the next five Daytona 500 wins, who knows right?
“I take a lot of pride in, I really do, — they’re definitely not by chance or by accident.”
What makes a Daytona 500 slayer? The broad skill set needed to survive the carnage, complete the passes and lead the draft to the end has been shown in only few drivers consistently. For Hamlin, having the right handling setup and a crew chief in Chris Gabehart who can do it have been crucial elements in winning the 500 three times.
“I would say I typically have my setup a little bit different from my teammates simply because of how I like to drive and the positions I need to put myself in,” he said. “I need my car to do certain things for that and it may not always make it the fastest, but over time I’ve learned I need my car to be able to make the moves I need to make at the end of the race to win.
“I typically just say, ‘I need the car to do this. I don’t care if it’s slower.’ Like if it does this, I can manipulate the air and the situation I’m around enough to make the difference.
“[Gabehart] kind of allows me to do what I do on the superspeedways. He tries to give me the fastest car that he can possibly give me, but it all comes down to the end, right? Is your car damaged? Do you have any teammates at the end? Can you make the right moves and the right decision? So, that’s where our communication and our partnership really works well on these superspeedways.”
For the first time, Hamlin will enter Daytona Speedweeks as an owner/driver; Driving his JGR No. 11 and owning the 23XI Racing Toyota driven by Ty Dillon in the Busch Clash and Bubba Wallace throughout the ’21 season.
Despite the added load across the offseason, the month of February put Hamlin back in the same mindset as previous seasons.
“For myself, I felt like February 1 was the date where I’m kind of done on the day-to-day for 23XI,” he said. “Now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship. That’s where ultimately is going to be the best thing for me in the long run to continue to be successful.
“This is where my focus is now. I’ll spend a day or a day-and-a-half during the week that I typically would have off — that will be my time to concentrate on 23XI. But, my preparation time, my post-race time will be unchanged here on the driver’s side.”