Denny Hamlin is looking to change his luck this season.
Daytona International Speedway is probably as good a place to start as any.
Although Hamlin was in the hunt for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship, he is coming off back-to-back seasons during which he missed races because of health issues – a broken bone in his back in 2013 and an eye infection in 2014.
And while Hamlin has enjoyed success at Daytona, he hasn’t won any races at the track that pay points or count toward qualifying for the championship Chase.
He’s a two-time winner of the Sprint Unlimited (2006 and 2014), the exhibition race that serves as the unofficial kickoff of the NASCAR season.
He also has won two Gatorade Duel Daytona 500 qualifying races – in 2008 and last year – which provide a good starting position in the Daytona 500 but don’t count as official race wins. Hamlin’s 2008 win was the first of any kind for Toyota in the Cup series.
Yet one of NASCAR’s signature prizes – a Daytona 500 victory – remains elusive.
“I’m as optimistic this time of the year as I have been any year,” Hamlin said. “I’m no hungrier. I’m too competitive to be lackadaisical.
“We had a lackluster year (in 2014) but still made it as far as we did. I thought last year we ran as bad as we possibly could, given the organization we’re with. We’ve got a lot of room for improvement, and I think that will change this year.”
There are changes within Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, too.
Hamlin begins the year with a new crew chief in Dave Rogers, who most recently worked with teammate Kyle Busch.
“I think it’s going to add just a level of excitement. Any time you get new personnel, there’s new ideas,” Hamlin said of the change. “I think Dave uses a lot of what he worked with Kyle and had success with, and I’ll bring a lot of what me and Darian (Grubb, former crew chief) had success with, and hopefully it pairs up to be something very, very good.”
Hamlin also has a new teammate this season in Carl Edwards, as JGR moved to a four-car operation in the offseason.
Like Hamlin and Busch, Edwards is still searching for his first Cup series title, and Hamlin believes the added resources from the addition of a fourth team will increase all of the drivers’ chances.
“Any time you can bring in a fourth sponsor and driver, you’re bringing in extra revenue,” Hamlin said. “And that allows us to hire more people, spend more money on R&D and things like that that are really important for a team’s success.
“I’ve seen it with each Cup driver that’s come in here, it brought a level of talent that’s made everyone else raise the level of their game.”
As with his search for a Daytona 500 victory, Hamlin’s quest for a Cup championship has hit just about every mark on the target except the bull’s-eye.
Although winning only once last season and missing a race, Hamlin still qualified for the championship season finale at Homestead, Fla., and finished third – his best finish in the title hunt since he was runner-up in 2010.
“In my mind it’s a championship or nothing,” he said. “But you’ve also got to think that if you come up short in the last race after a 10-win season, it’s still been a pretty good year.
“You always upgrade your goals, but the pinnacle of actually being a Sprint Cup champion is always the highest bar you can possible set, and that’s where I set my standards.”