Tampa Bay ties remain strong for defending Daytona champ Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin celebrates his victory in the Daytona 500 last year, the closest finish in the history of the race.
Denny Hamlin celebrates his victory in the Daytona 500 last year, the closest finish in the history of the race.
Published Feb. 25, 2017

DAYTONA BEACH — Denny Hamlin's Tampa crew sat in his motor coach last February and witnessed heartbreak.

His aunts and uncles and cousins watched on TV in the infield as Hamlin made a last-lap charge in the Daytona 500, flying from fourth to first. But when the checkered flag fell at Daytona International Speedway, they were sure it didn't matter. Martin Truex edged him at the finish line.

"We fell to our knees," said Hamlin's aunt, Rosaire Singleton. "Oh, no."

The disappointment didn't last long. Before the broadcast could pull up the replays, Hamlin's mother heard the final result on the scanner. Her son won by one-hundredth of a second, the closest finish in race history.

Misery turned into joy.

"It was, of course, his lifelong dream — and it came true," said his mother, Mary Lou. "It was very exciting for us."

That excitement still lingers in Tampa, where Hamlin's journey toward the top of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series begins.

It's where his mother was born and raised. It's where Mary Lou met her husband, Dennis. And it's where Hamlin was born, at what is now St. Joseph's Women's Hospital, when his parents resided in Brandon.

Although Hamlin moved to Virginia when he was 2, three sets of aunts and uncles still live in the area.

"We're the Florida family," said Singleton, who lives in Wesley Chapel.

Their reunions often take place at racetracks during NASCAR's three trips to Florida — the Daytona races in February and July and the November finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"They've been great luck to me," Hamlin said.

In 12 races at Homestead, he has two victories and six other top 10s. He has seven top-six finishes at Daytona, not including his three exhibition wins in what's now called The Clash, or the victory in one of Thursday's duel qualifying races that placed him fourth for Sunday's 500.

None of those come close to the 36-year-old's career-defining performance at last year's Great American Race and a final lap Hamlin figures he has watched at least 50 times.

Hamlin moved his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to the outside lane after the white flag. By Turn 3, he was up to third.

Hamlin surged at teammate Matt Kenseth, who drifted just enough to allow Hamlin to dart inside, then banged and side-drafted Truex to the finish line. Hamlin didn't know he won until he looked at the scoring pylon afterward. Back in his motor coach, his family wasn't sure until it saw his pit crew jumping up and down.

"Surreal," Mary Lou said.

That unfathomable photo finish set off a different kind of race: How quickly could the 10 or so relatives get from the infield to Victory Lane with only one golf cart?

They took off as fast as they could but eventually ran into a crowd near the gates. Someone behind them yelled that family was coming through.

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"It was like parting the Red Sea," Singleton said.

Singleton parked herself near the confetti cannon for the initial celebration. Hamlin pumped his fists. Cameras clicked.

Hamlin couldn't stay long. His victory responsibilities pulled him away for meetings with his team, sponsors and the media.

A few hours later he finally got back to the bus. His Florida family was waiting — for pictures and hugs and a remarkable reunion 150 miles from home.

"It was definitely a lifetime event," Hamlin said, "that we'll never forget."

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.