Denny Hamlin comes into this year’s Daytona 500 in a position he’s never been in before.
Winning last year’s race – the closest finish in the history of the Great American Race – will do that for you.
Even though he took in the Orlando Magic game Wednesday night, the defending 500 Hamlin was in a mood to also talk NASCAR.
Among the topics he discussed were defending his title from last year’s 500 win, as well as going for his second consecutive and fourth overall win in this Saturday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway.
“Nothing aesthetically changes per se, but it’s a very proud moment when you’re announced publicly as a Daytona 500 champion,” Hamlin said. “It’s the biggest race of the year for us and the most historic by far.
“It’s great to have that label stamped on your resume for as long as you’re around and maybe even after. It’s cool to win any Daytona 500, but to win the closest one in history was a great moment. That clip (of him crossing the finish line just ahead of Martin Truex Jr.) has been played for many media outlets, I see it all the time and it just reminds me of how great a day it was.”
Now comes the question, what will Hamlin do for a 500 encore? He feels confident he can make it two in a row.
“I’d say there’s more pressure to get another one,” he said. “One of my good friends, Michael Waltrip, has two (wins) and reminds me that there’s only a few guys that have two. You think that after you’ve won one, the weight’s off and you can breathe easier now.
“But for me, you want to win two. You want to show that one is not a fluke. I feel like the last few years, we’ve given it a great shot and last year was obviously a great finish. But every time we step onto the race track at Daytona, we feel like we can win. We’ve won the Clash three times and so we’re capable of doing it. If anyone can go back-to-back, this is the year for us. But for me, you want to win two. You want to show that one is not a fluke.”
Hamlin kicks off his 2017 season in Saturday night’s Clash. If he wins it for a fourth time, Hamlin feels it will give him a leg up on fulfilling that goal of winning a second Daytona 500.
“That race (the Clash) is usually a race of attrition,” he said. “There’s usually a lot of wrecks, and a lot of it is because we’re rusty.
“These teams got to where they don’t like to run a whole lot of practice because they tear up race cars and then you’re building another race car that you really don’t need to. So the teams have pulled back on practice on Friday and Saturday and what I think that’s done is create more wrecks on Saturday.”
“Drivers are not used to how the cars are going to handle in the pack because the pack is never that big until you get in the race,” Hamlin said. “I encourage Daniel (Suarez) in particular to get out there and run with as many cars as possible because he’s going to find himself in positions that he’s never been in before. You’ve got to be aware of that.”
And how does Hamlin expect to win the Clash again?
“As a driver, I used the strategy of laying back at the beginning last year and we won it,” he said. “Two years ago when we won it, I tried to stay up front the entire event and it paid off.
“There’s several different ways to win but it’s a tough field. It’s the best of the best. You know you’re going to have stiff competition, but for whatever reason, it’s been a race that myself personally have had a lot of success at.”