Denny Hamlin still isn’t feeling the full impact from what he accomplished in February.
It’s been six months since Hamlin won stock car racing’s biggest event, the Daytona 500. Six months since Hamlin edged Martin Truex Jr. in the closest finish in the race’s history. Six months, it would seem, to bask in his feat.
“It’s a question or answer that’s going to have to come years down the road,” said Hamlin, who is back at Daytona International Speedway for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400. “I think that I’m only six months out. I mean, obviously a lot of people really – a lot of people were watching that race.”
Winning the Daytona 500 is a career-defining moment – NASCAR’s equivalent of slipping on the green jacket after golf’s Masters or prevailing at tennis’s Wimbledon. Only the Indianapolis 500 can match winning Daytona in American motorsports.
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“A lot of people know just that race because that’s the one race that they tune into to start the year and know it’s our biggest one,” said Hamlin. “So anytime you can win that one it’s awesome – especially in the fashion that we won it. But, yeah, for me it’s just the casual race fan that doesn’t watch racing at all, they know me as the person because they’ve seen me through the media and whatnot winning the Daytona 500. I think what it means for me in the long term I don’t know, but can’t wait to find out for sure.”
Much of what made Hamlin’s victory special was in how it came about.
... It was about five years ago that something happened on the restrictor-plate race tracks where it clicked and I got it.
He was one of several drivers who trailed leader Matt Kenseth rounding Turn 3 of the final lap. Hamlin, getting a push from Kevin Harvick, made his move on Kenseth, coming from the group of cars high trailing the leaders high on the track.
Kenseth reacted by moving up to try to block Hamlin, a move that failed. Kenseth’s car wobbled slightly as it tried to pinch off Hamlin.
Kenseth slowed, but still Hamlin still had to catch Truex, who had taken the lead.
The two sprinted to the finish line, with Hamlin prevailing by .01 of a second, the closest in race history and tied for seventh tightest in NASCAR history.
Denny Hamlin’s victory in the Daytona 500 virtually guaranteed him a spot in the Chase.
Since then, the season has been a mixed bag for Hamlin. He hasn’t won again, but came close last week when he finished second behind Tony Stewart at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. Hamlin led going into the 11th and final turn on the final lap of the road course. Feeling pressure from Stewart from behind, Hamlin misjudged the final turn, going wide and allowing Stewart room on the inside. Stewart nudged Hamlin aside and went on to win.
“In my defense – and I should still not make mistakes – I’ve never been in that position before,” Hamlin said. “I’ve not been that competitive on road courses and so I didn’t know the proper defensive move going into that last corner. I’d love to have that situation back again, but I really just didn’t know the proper move. I thought I had two car lengths. Looking back at the video, I probably had three and that’s kind of the point where you can just run your own corner and maybe be OK.
2 Career restrictor-plate victories for Hamlin
“But I knew he was going to throw caution to the wind and I looked up and went to my same braking point and I wheel hopped. So I just made a mistake being in a position I’ve never been in before, but now I have confidence that now every road course I go to I can win those races. It’s not been because of my cars – it’s been because of me – but now I feel like completely the cycle is possible and I’ll get it before my career is over for sure.”
But now he’s back on more familiar turf at Daytona. Hamlin has 17 career victories on superspeedways and also has a victory in 2014 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the Cup series’ other restrictor-plate track.
“Yeah, it’s been a great – for some reason, it was about five years ago that something happened on the restrictor plate race tracks where it clicked and I got it,” Hamlin said. “I feel like I know what I’m doing and the results have showed it.”
Coke Zero 400
Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Track type: 2.5-mile superspeedway.
Race distance: 400 miles, or 160 laps.
Green flag: 8:08 p.m.
Weather: Mostly cloudy, high of 82; 20 percent chance of rain.
Radio: Motor Racing Network.