Denny Hamlin knows he must travel a new road to stay on course for NASCAR title
Denny Hamlin is at the peak of his career. He won 13 NASCAR races over the last two years, including the Daytona 500 both years. He is hoping to become the first driver in the history of Daytona to win the sport’s most prestigious race three years in a row.
But on the eve of the Daytona 500 he knows he’s facing a season in which changes to the schedule have left him with seemingly less of an advantage than he has enjoyed in the past. This year, there will be seven road course races, compared to three last year. In his career, Hamlin has won one of 33 starts on road courses on the major circuit.
“The schedule hurts us as far as our historical data is concerned and the kind of success that me and [crew chief] Chris [Gabehart] have had,” Hamlin said.
NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has produced three top-level drivers since 2004, and now the racing series is looking to diversify team ownership.
“So, for me, I have to work on my road course skills, I’ve got to get better at them. I mean it’s a bigger part of our schedule now. It’s not something you can just kind of write off and say the road to the championship doesn’t lead through these races so it’s not where I’m going to focus my efforts.”
The first road course race is next week and it’s a bit of an anomaly. The race is normally held at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana but has been moved to the road course at Daytona because of COVID-19 restrictions in Southern California.
The 40-year-old Hamlin will not be thinking of road courses Sunday when he starts 25th in the Daytona 500. Hamlin didn’t win any poles last year, so his starting position is of little concern. But, there’s some question of whether the race actually will be 500 miles or even be held Sunday.
There is a 60% chance of rain around the 2:30 p.m. EST start, and the wet weather is expected to continue into the late evening. If the race starts, and gets near the halfway point, drivers tend to treat the race as a sprint, just in case the race is called and made official. A total washout would move the race to Monday, like last year when Hamlin won his third Daytona 500.
“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,” Hamlin said about going for a record-setting win. “I think about all the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn’t make the right decision at the end to finish it off. It would be by far the biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything.”
Hamlin has some divided loyalties as he is now a part-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. Bubba Wallace is their driver and has shown his car is very strong. He was second in the second 150-mile qualifying race Thursday night despite some driver errors. He starts on the outside of the third row.
“I felt like Feb. 1 was the date where I’m kind of done on the day-to-day for 23XI and I just think now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship,” Hamlin said.
Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon finished in the top spots in the Twin 150-mile qualifying races for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The front row of Sunday’s 500 has Alex Bowman on the pole and technically William Byron is on the outside of the row. But Byron will have to start at the back of the pack after being involved in a wreck Thursday night, causing him to use his backup car.
No driver who has won the pole has also won the race since Dale Jarrett in 2000.
“It’s a really hard race to win,” Bowman said. “So many things have to go right. Your day has to go so well and it’s hard. … I don’t think any of our previous 500 runs have really even been influenced from where we start, so we just got to get to the end and if we do that, I know we’ll have a chance.”
Hamlin certainly has the experience to win this race but knows that things aren’t as easy as they have been in the past.
It’s been 20 years since the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, and this year’s race brings back vivid memories of Ryan Newman’s 2020 crash.
“Go back and watch races from 2004, 2005, there were just five or six superior cars that could pull away from the pack or they just were better, cars were strung out more, the wrecks weren’t,” Hamlin said. “You win now because the field is closer. The chances of you getting in wrecks are higher and sometimes you get unlucky in that skill game.
“We’ve been fortunate, but it’s still, in the end, a skill game and making sure you’re putting yourself in the right position. I take a lot of pride in [the fact that our wins are ] definitely not by chance or by accident.”
There are seven other drivers in the race who have won the Daytona 500, but none of them more than once: Kurt Busch (2017), Derrike Cope (1990), Austin Dillon (2018), Kevin Harvick (2007), Joey Logano (2015), Jamie McMurray (2010) and Ryan Newman (2008).
Sunday we’ll see if Hamlin makes history or is a footnote.
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