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Denny Hamlin concludes hectic week as Daytona 500 champ

Denny Hamlin does a celebratory spin-out after winning the Daytona 500.
Denny Hamlin does a celebratory spin-out after winning the Daytona 500. Getty Images

Winning the Daytona 500 has its own set of celebration-week challenges.

Not the least among them, for Denny Hamlin, were the wake-up calls.

“The mornings, the 5 a.m. stuff,” Hamlin said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the site of Sunday’s QuikTrip 500. “For some people, 5 a.m. is a normal day. For myself, not so much. So that was a struggle.”

The responsibilities that go with winning Daytona – which Hamlin did last Sunday – are pretty grueling. After getting no sleep after the race, Hamlin made it to Daytona’s “Champion’s Breakfast” at 7 a.m. Monday. Then it was on to New York and Bristol, Conn., for two days of interviews.

In Bristol, he appeared on ESPN’s “Highly Questionable” show.

“I’m a huge fan,” Hamlin said. “I liked going on that.”

Wednesday, he flew to Texas, where he already had a personal business commitment scheduled. On Thursday, he was in Atlanta for a CNN interview and appearance at the Georgia state capitol.

For some people, 5 a.m. is a normal day.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin’s victory was the closest in Daytona 500 history – by one-hundredth of a second over Martin Truex Jr. Six days later, Hamlin recalled the laps that preceded that photo finish, as well as a conversation he had with one of the drivers he reluctantly vanquished – Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

Hamlin won despite being on the slower outside line as the race wound down. He had considered making a move on leader Kenseth a few laps from the finish, but didn’t have a line of cars behind him to help push him aerodynamically forward. By then, the two cars immediately behind Kenseth on the inside were the Toyotas of JGR’s two other drivers -- Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.

“I had a huge run down the backstretch and I got to Kyle and I was thinking about making a move then, but the outside line had not formed yet,” said Hamlin. “So I knew if I pulled side-by-side with him with two and a half to go, I was going to let the competition in. At that point, it was just a Toyota battle and I knew allowing, (with) two and a half laps (left), there was going to be somebody else that we were going to let in the race for the win if we didn’t stay in line as long as possible.”

Hamlin didn’t get any sleep Sunday night after the Daytona 500, and not much of it the rest of the week, either.

On the final corner of the final lap, Hamlin went for it. Kenseth went up the track to try and block him, but the tactic failed.

“I saw Denny rocket out there I thought, ‘Man, I should have tried that,’ ” said Edwards. “But you just never know. It’s the split- second decision of whether or not guys stay in line or if they all try to go around you when you pull out. You just don’t know, but I thought Denny did a really good job.”

JGR cars finished first, third (Busch) and fifth (Edwards). Truex, whose Furniture Row Racing receives technical support from JGR, was a tantalizingly close second. Kenseth was 14th.

.01 second Hamlin’s margin of victory over Martin Truex Jr. in the Daytona 500

“I thought really the guy who did a great job was Matt (Kenseth) in realizing that he was about to wreck the entire field as he got loose,” said Edwards. “For him to save that was spectacular.”

As happy as Hamlin was with the victory, he was empathetic with Kenseth, who might have held on for the victory had he not tried to block his teammate. They talked later Sunday night.

“My conversation with Matt was good,” said Hamlin. “I think he knows where I stood on everything and we definitely understand each other for sure and I felt so bad for him. I just wanted to let him know that at the end it was bad for him. I highly regard him as far as the guys that I look up to.”

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