For a while, Denny Hamlin indeed made it look easy again.
An ill-fated pit strategy under green flag conditions may have put the kibosh on his bid to become the first driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500s on Sunday night. But not before Hamlin showed again why he’s become so dominant on the superspeedways in recent years.
“We were controlling the lines, controlling the pace – It was easy for a little while,” Hamlin said after a race where he led the most laps (98) and swept both stages. “But I knew it was all gonna be about that last pit stop if we didn’t have any other cautions.”
Before things went awry, Hamlin dictated the proceedings with his Toyota teammates often behind him. Of course, a good spotter is essential to mastering the art of superspeedway racing – and in Chris Lambert, Hamlin has one of the best.
“He really does a great job painting a picture for me in the mirror, that way I don’t have to look,” Hamlin said of Lambert. “I can just trust in what he’s saying and make a move. That’s been the key, I think, to me, being able to control and move side to side in tight spaces. It’s been our communication and how well we’ve worked together.”
But after he and his teammates were shuffled back in the field following the green flag cycle with less than 30 laps to go, Hamlin was at the mercy of the single-file line that droned around the 2.5-mile oval until roughly two laps to go.
Now running in single-file with Joey Logano at the front, the Fords and Chevrolets quickly swallowed them up. Hamlin ended up slotting into 13th at Lap 176. When the white flag waved 23 laps later, he had only been able to move up to ninth.
He avoided the fiery, multi-car wreck on the last lap to finish fifth. Afterwards, he seemed miffed over the lack of effort in making a move with a win on the line.
“I understood at the end of stages, waiting until the last lap – you’re gonna get some points, no matter what,” he said. “But ultimately, and this is selfishly speaking, I’m wondering, ‘What in the world? Why are we running in a single file line crossing the white – 10th, 12th, 8th, 6th, are you just happy with that finish or are you gonna go for it?’ Especially since there were really no Fords beyond fifth or sixth – it was them and everyone else. Then, surprise, everyone else didn’t go.
“I wasn’t sure who was leading that, whether it was Austin (Dillon) or Chase (Elliott). I don’t know. You gotta go for the win. I tried to do everything I could from 12th. I kept pulling out of line, trying to side-draft guys, try to pick them off one by one. But I couldn’t make it happen. Once I got to eighth in line after I passed some lapped cars, I was like, ‘This is all I’ve got.’ I just hoped that they’d crash with two to go and we’d get a restart and then I’ve get a shot. It just didn’t happen in our favor.”
All’s well that ends well for Larson
Kyle Larson appeared to have escaped the last-lap crash like Hamlin did, but contact from another competitor sent him into the Turn 4 wall and spinning.
Despite the incident, Larson was credited with a 10th-place finish after NASCAR froze the field at the time of the caution. That capped an official return to Cup racing which had its ups and downs.
Larson scored points in both stages, but toward the end of Stage 2, he suffered a left rear tire failure after getting knocked into the wall. After finishing eighth in the stage, he was assessed a pit road penalty for a safety violation.
He quietly made his way back toward the front, and was within striking distance of the leaders on the final lap before the crash.
“I thought we were in an OK spot there at the end to get a top five, if not, maybe a win if things worked out down the backstretch and through (turns) three and four,” Larson said afterwards. “They all kind of started crashing in front of me.
“I almost made it through; I think I barely clipped the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) car and then kind of slid all the way through (turns) three and four. Thought I might save it, couldn’t save it and started spinning. Lost some spots, but it was still a top 10.”
Spire scores double top 10
Spire Motorsports expanded to a two-car program in the offseason with Corey LaJoie as its mainstay in the No. 7 Chevrolet. For the Daytona 500, its other entry, the No. 77, was driven by 2010 race winner and Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Jamie McMurray in a one-off effort.
Both drivers scored top 10 finishes with McMurray in eighth and LaJoie in ninth. Prior to Sunday, the team had only one top 10-finish in Cup competition – its rain-shortened win with Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley at Daytona in July 2019.
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) February 15, 2021
McMurray recovered from two separate incidents during the race. He was involved in the 16-car pileup on Lap 14, and was later sent spinning behind Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s incident on Lap 112.
McMurray also recorded the fastest lap of the race at 44.945 seconds (200.245 mph) on Lap 189.
Rule of 3’s
Twenty years after he lost his life in the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt was honored with a tribute at Lap 3 in Sunday’s race. Fans in the grandstands and competitors on pit road raised three fingers, while the scoring pylon lit up top to bottom with Earnhardt’s famous No. 3.
Lap 3 also saw the first elimination in Sunday’s race. Derrike Cope, who capitalized on Earnhardt’s flat tire on the final lap to win the 1990 Daytona 500, suffered a tire failure and crashed out of what was likely his final career Cup start.
Cope was driving the No. 15 entry for Rick Ware Racing. Earnhardt drove the No. 15 entry for Bud Moore during the 1982 and 1983 seasons, earning – of course – three wins during that span.
The following year, Earnhardt returned to Richard Childress’ No. 3 Chevrolet for good.