Denny Hamlin strong in Daytona 500, but win proves elusive again

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For the third time in four years, Denny Hamlin settled for a near-miss in the Daytona 500.

After finishing fourth in 2012, Hamlin chased Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the checkered flag in last year’s Great American Race. On Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, Hamlin was again a threat to win and was side-by-side with leader Joey Logano when the race went into green-white-checkered.

But in the last dash for glory, nobody could get by Logano. Hamlin came home fourth, falling behind Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“All you can ask for is a chance, really,” Hamlin said. “When you start on the front row on a green-white-checkered, you got a 50/50 shot. It’s a matter of whether your line forms up better than the other line. Ours just didn’t form up well and allowed the (Logano) to get clear – really, everyone on the top lane to get clear of us. That was pretty much it.”

The green-white-checkered was set up by an incident involving Justin Allgaier and Ty Dillon with three laps left in regulation. Leading to that point, the field ran three-wide around the 2.5-mile oval.

Hamlin was at the front of that breathtaking pack along with Logano and Jimmie Johnson. When asked about the final 20 laps, Hamlin said he thought the field could have finished “three by three, eight rows deep” if the caution had not come out.

“I think the drivers have just gotten so smart over the last really year and a half,” Hamlin said. “I mean, as far as working their mirror, working the side draft. Guys don’t breakaway anymore. They don’t let them get free because they just side draft so much.”

Logano kept in front of the pack and did so again in overtime. Hamlin has had his share of scrapes with Logano since the latter left Joe Gibbs Racing, but on Sunday, he was complimentary of his former teammate and noted how far he’s come in his evolution.

“He’s a different driver really,” Hamlin said. “I think some situations just suit you better. You look at when he left the 20 car, the 20 car instantly ran better. When he left, he instantly ran better. I just think the situation didn’t work for him. I think he matured and did his homework. He’s really become one of the elite drivers in our sport.

“Every single weekend, you know you’re going to have to beat the 22. That’s something we didn’t say about Joey just three years ago. I think he’s with a great situation. Their cars are really good. He just made the best of it.”