After Daytona success, Denny Hamlin rounding back into form

Denny Hamlin edged Brad Keselowski to win the 2015 STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, one of Hamlin’s five wins at the track.
Denny Hamlin edged Brad Keselowski to win the 2015 STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, one of Hamlin’s five wins at the track. AP

Lots of perks come with winning the Daytona 500: fame, money, the ability to say you’ve won stock car racing’s biggest race.

But Denny Hamlin has found out something extra. He’s had more time to prepare for the Chase, the Cup Series’ postseason into which he’s virtually clinched a berth.

“It just makes me hungry,” said Hamlin, a Virginia native who starts eighth in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, a track where he has won five times, including last season’s spring race. “I just think we are getting into the swing of things.”

Hamlin followed up his Daytona victory – his .01-second margin of victory over Martin Truex Jr. was the closest in race history – with a couple of sub-par performances at Atlanta (16th) and Las Vegas (19th), before rebounding with top-five finishes more recently at Phoenix (third) and Fontana (third).

I just think that we’re probably getting into the swing of things.

Denny Hamlin

In other words, if there was a Daytona hangover, Hamlin appears to have shaken it.

“I look at the next six races, and I’m like, ‘If I don’t win at least two of them, I’ll probably be disappointed,’” Hamlin said. “I just think that we’re probably in the swing of things.”

Daytona, with all of its glamor and prestige, is considered somewhat of a one-off race. Teams prepare for weeks for Daytona – and Daytona alone – during the off-season. It’s only after Daytona that they begin to really concentrate on the rest of the season.

Hamlin was in that position too – witness his finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas – as he also worked to become accustomed to Mike Wheeler, his new crew chief.

Hamlin starts eighth in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville

“(Our) relationship is really getting there,” Hamlin said of Wheeler, who has known Hamlin for several years at Joe Gibbs Racing and was crew chief on JGR’s No. 11 Xfinity Series car in 2015. “Even though we’ve worked together for a really long time, we’re starting to get really on the same page and getting the cars like I like to drive them.

“I’m pretty optimistic for obvious reasons and I look at this point in the schedule as, let’s take advantage of getting some wins and getting some bonus points for the first round (of the Chase).”

Hamlin was familiar with Martinsville’s tricky, paper-clip layout before he broke in as a Cup rookie in 2005. Growing up in Chesterfield, Va., Hamlin had experience running in Late Model Stock races at Martinsville.

“Even my first lap here, it felt like I’d run a million laps here,” Hamlin said.

1,315 Laps led at Martinsville by Hamlin, 14th on track’s all-time list

Hamlin is the only one of JGR’s four drivers who has won at Martinsville, although Kyle Busch (six top-fives, one pole) and Matt Kenseth (five top-fives) have come close.

“I knew Denny was always good at Martinsville, so I leaned on him a lot and still do today,” Busch said recently. “Each and every year I lean on him more and more, and try to pick his brain and learn things that he might know that I still don’t know yet and make sure I get all I can for Martinsville.”

Hamlin is happy to share Martinsville intel – as long as it’s reciprocated elsewhere.

“I’ve been an open book to my teammates,” he said. “Not keeping one or two things to myself, I feel, has cost me wins. I’ve just never been a believer of keeping things under my hat. If we’re a team and that’s what makes (us) so strong, I feel that if I ask Carl (Edwards) or Matt or Kyle a question, I expect them to give me the 100 percent, honest answer and tell me everything. Don’t leave this part out or that part out. If I do the same to them, then when I need the information I’ll get it back.

“It might have cost me here or there, but probably the information I’ve got on other tracks has gotten me a win or two. So I think it all evens out.”

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