There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were just to go home relatively unscathed.
Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.
But after a breakthrough fourth-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.
“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“We went a long time, and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”
In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished second (2014), fourth (2015), first (2016), 17th (2017), third (2018), first (2019) and first again this past Monday.
Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-five finishes in the last nine season openers.
Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.
With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last-lap crash on the frontstretch heading toward the checkered flag.
“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.
“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.
“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know, ‘Hey, pass this way,’ and when I did, I was able to get back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).
“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle, and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”
Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.
“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’
“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.
“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful in making his moves and passes.”
Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.
“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.
“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the final four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.
“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year, and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”