A year ago, Denny Hamlin became just the fourth driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500’s. Richard Petty did it in 1973 and 1974. Cale Yarborough did it in 1983 and 1984. Sterling Marlin was the last to do so in 1994 and again in 1995. The odds don’t look favorable for Hamlin to repeat on Sunday again though as no driver has ever won this race for three straight years before.
But, I wouldn’t put it past Hamlin to tied Yarborough for the second most Daytona 500 wins ever and also become the first to three peat.
See, Hamlin is a big stick and ball sport fan. So, to say that he’s a student of the game in NASCAR, would resonate well within the Virginia native. For Hamlin, he went from a struggling superspeedway racer to arguably the best in the NASCAR Cup Series today.
Last February, Hamlin became just the sixth driver in the history of the sport to win the Daytona 500 three or more times. What’s even more impressive is, all three wins have come in the last five years. Counter that with his best finish in his first six Daytona 500 tries being 17th and you get a complete turn around from the start of his career to now.
“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said a week after his Daytona win last year. “We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races. It just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”
Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Kyle Busch may have two championships compared to Hamlin’s none, but Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three Harley J. Earl trophies in his collection.
“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin’s superspeedway abilities in the Gen 6 car, the current model. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’
“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.
“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”
Brad Keselowski is most impressed with Hamlin in the sense that you go to these speedway races expecting to wreck. The odds are far greater of being caught up in a crash during the course of those races than an actual win. So, for the fact that Hamlin has won three times in the last five years in the Daytona 500 is nothing short of remarkable according to Keselowski.
Hamlin, has also scored a top four finish in six of his last seven Daytona 500 tries. He came home in the top four in all four of his superspeedway starts last season. He’s won 13 times in the last two years overall and is in the midst of consecutive career years. The only problem is that he’s not won a title.
Can 2021 be the year? Can he win another Daytona 500 and earn a championship at Phoenix in November too?
Hamlin says a win at Daytona this year would be so special to him this year.
“This is a big opportunity for us, my team and myself personally,” Hamlin said of winning the 63rd annual event. “Never would have imagined that we’d be in this position by any means, especially five years ago when we didn’t have any.
“I always think about in these situations and any time I get asked about all the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn’t make the right decisions in the end to finish it off. It would be by far be my biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything.”