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Daytona 500: How Denny Hamlin transformed himself to have a shot at history

The Tampa-born NASCAR veteran hopes to become the sixth driver to win the Great American Race three times.
Denny Hamlin can join elite company by winning Sunday's Daytona 500. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Denny Hamlin can join elite company by winning Sunday's Daytona 500. (AP Photo/Terry Renna) [ TERRY RENNA | AP ]
Published Feb. 12, 2020
Updated Feb. 12, 2020

DAYTONA BEACH — As Denny Hamlin prepares for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, he already has a place in the race’s storied history.

The Tampa-born driver won his first 500 in 2016 by the tightest margin ever, 0.01 seconds. Last year, he became only the 12th racer to win NASCAR’s biggest race multiple times.

Related: Tampa Bay ties remain strong for defending Daytona champ Denny Hamlin

One more victory would put him alongside Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett as the only three-time winners of the Great American Race.

“You really become part of a very, very elite class with that third one,” Hamlin said Wednesday.

Hamlin has put himself in contention to join that class thanks to moves he began making six or seven years ago.

As good as Hamlin was early in his career —he finished third in the Cup Series in his first full-time season, 2006 — his short-track roots didn’t translate to the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. In his first 16 races at the 2½-mile superspeedway, Hamlin’s average finish was 21.5.

Hamlin figured his struggles weren’t because of his equipment; in his first two Joe Gibbs Racing seasons, then-teammate Tony Stewart won Daytona’s July race twice and finished in the top seven in both 500s.

The cars weren’t the problem. Hamlin was.

Denny Hamlin answers questions during Daytona 500 media day Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway.
Denny Hamlin answers questions during Daytona 500 media day Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

“Why do Tony Stewart and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. continue to be up front in these races, and I’m continuing to be in the garage or in the infield care center?” Hamlin asked himself. “There’s something not right.”

When Hamlin began studying them, he realized they were better at managing risk, through analytics, feel or both.

The numbers come in by knowing where the inevitable big wrecks are likely to happen. Historically, Hamlin said they start around sixth position. The last few years, that number is closer to third.

Either way, the best way to avoid them is to stay in front of them. Hamlin has been able to do that, leading seven of the last eight 500s.

Related: Daytona spent $400 million to reinvent itself. Here’s what it learned

When Hamlin isn’t in the front, he has built up enough superspeedway experience to feel when the field is starting to get antsy. If Hamlin doesn’t like where his No. 11 Toyota sits, he’s not afraid to remove himself from the pack by dropping back. It sounds counter-intuitive as a way to victory lane, but you won’t have a shot at finishing lap 200 in first if you don’t make it to lap 100.

“I really trust my intuition and instincts…” Hamlin said. “When you feel that hair on the back of your neck stands up, it’s time to get out and time to make sure you put yourself in position to get to the finish.”

Hamlin hasn’t been able to maximize all of those opportunities, but his two victories are proof that his overhaul has worked. Four years ago, he charged from fourth to first in the last half-lap to edge Martin Truex Jr. at the finish line. Last year, Hamlin avoided a late, 21-car crash and passed teammate Kyle Busch on the final restart to snap a 47-race winless streak.

Denny Hamlin celebrates after winning last year's Daytona 500.
Denny Hamlin celebrates after winning last year's Daytona 500. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Hamlin enters Thursday night’s duels confident about his chances this weekend. Given his recent history, why wouldn’t he be?

But the analytics also force him to be realistic. After so many years of success, he’s statistically due for some setbacks as he chases a chance to join NASCAR royalty with a historic third Daytona triumph.

“I think I’ve still got quite a few years ahead of me to get a third,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully it’s this year.”

Trump expected to attend

President Donald Trump is expected to attend Sunday’s race. He would be the fourth sitting president to attend a NASCAR race at the track, after Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.