DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — How does one define greatness? It’s a revolving definition to the eyes of the beholder. Is it measured by championships? Wins? Which is it?
In one instance though, there’s not really too much of a debate, Denny Hamlin is arguably the best superspeedway racer in the NASCAR Cup Series today. He’s a phenomenal driver in this art of racing. And that’s exactly what pack racing is here. It’s an art. A skill. It takes bravery. Precision. Patience. A vision and knack for feeling the difference on when to aggressively make a move to the front or to bail out to the back.
Watching Hamlin at Daytona or Talladega is like watching in real time Picasso paint a masterpiece.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has reached the pinnacle in NASCAR’s Super Bowl three times including two of which in the last three years. Should he visit victory lane after 500 miles of racing on Sunday, he’d join Richard Petty (7) and Cale Yarborough (4) as the only drivers to have won this race four or more times in the 64 year history of the event.
In saying that, his three JGR teammates are hoping that he shares the wealth. See, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have won almost everything there is to win with the exception of the Daytona 500.
Busch, is 0-for-16 in this race. Truex, is 0-for-17. Both have had their moments before but have had issues in the end that kept them out of victory lane instead.
“Maybe I need to change something, but in reality, I feel like it’s so circumstantial anyways, I’m like ‘What is the point?’ said Busch during Speedweeks this week. “Do your certain amount of study, watch film and talk to your guys and strategize what you can, but past that – I was leading the Daytona 500 a few years ago and had a flat left rear, crashed. I was leading the Daytona 500 with 13 laps to go and blew up. Running top-eight, top-10 most of the day, another year, finished second or third in that one. Whatever happens, happens. You could be running fourth going into (turn) three and win the race or be leading and get wrecked. What’s to study?”
“For me, I hope I can make it to the last lap,” he says. “It’s been difficult in years past. I think the last time I finished this race was 2016. Hopefully we have a little better luck this week. We’re just going to have to figure it out.
The thing is, Busch has finished 33rd or worse in three of his last four Daytona points paying starts and has only had one top five here since 2017 too. Furthermore, just three of his 16 starts in the Great American Race being in the top five at that.
He does say that his teammate in Hamlin does a pretty good job of preparing the most though.
“As we’ve seen, he’s won three of the last seven 500s. He’s getting the most out of it as well,” Busch continued. “I don’t know what his preparations are, but they are probably different than mine which have become more fruit for him than me.”
Busch has won Cup races here before though. He’s won the July race. He’s won three Duels to go along with one win in Xfinity and the Truck Series’ each. The only thing missing is the Daytona 500.
Truex, only has five career top five finishes in 67 points paying superspeedway starts. 5 of his last 6 Daytona finishes have been 22nd or worse.
“I would certainly like to win it. I’m the closest one to winning it that hasn’t, I guess,” he said. “That really doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s a big race. It’s the biggest race in our sport. It’s on that we’ve tried every year to win and been close. I don’t know I never have really thought about it.
“I think we’ve got a good opportunity this weekend. We have a great team, and we will take advantage of that and a new car with a lot of unknowns. We will see who figures it out. I think we will have a great chance, just have to make it to the end. It’s been a tough luck track for us over the years. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend.”
Truex, narrowly lost to Hamlin in nearly record setting fashion back in 2016. So, it’s not like he’s been off every year. Could this be his chance?
Hamlin though hopes he can earn his third Harley J. Earl trophy instead but says that his advantage that he had in the Gen 7 car is potentially gone.
“I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls,” said Hamlin. “Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven’t won as much at Talladega, but we’ve been pretty good. Here, there is just something about – whatever it is – the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are it seems like that are a little bit better.
“We have a new car now and it’s going to move around a little bit different and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don’t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”
Their most inexperienced teammate among them is Christopher Bell. He’s just 0-for-2 in the Great American Race. But, this is also the first true season that he’s had some additional practice time though too. How much of a factor does this help him grow?
“That is crazy to think about,” said the third year driver. “This is my third year in Cup, but my first with full practice and qualifying. It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be different for everybody.”
Bell notes that we’ve got to use the word practice loosely though because it’s not a typical practice session where you are able to go out and make a run, come back in the garage, make an educated decision on what changes you are going to make.
“Theoretically, it is a hot lap session,” he continued. “I’m excited about that. It’s what I grew up doing at the dirt tracks all of the time. The name of the game this year is going to be improvise and just try to do the best you can with what you’ve got. I’m excited about going out there, having 15-minute practices, trying to make the best educated decisions on what – basically, pit road adjustments – you are going to make to go qualify and then go out and go as fast as you can in qualifying and the same thing in the race. I’m hopeful that it will suit my style.”
Another thing to help is this is a brand new car. Does that help or lessen an advantage in the sense that it’s a blank slate for everyone?
One part is you can throw away his first two years so the experience factor is out the window. But, with a similar car for everyone to figure out, does that give him an advantage or disadvantage?
“It’s going to be interesting to see if any of the veterans struggle with being quote ‘set in their ways’ and then the young guys coming into this sport that don’t have all of that experience and those notes of years and years racing the Gen6 cars,” he notes. “The cream is going to rise to the top. The best drivers are going to figure it out. The best teams are going to figure it out. One thing that we don’t know going into this season is what team is going to have the advantage. A lot of that is going to be setup induced, because as you mentioned, all the 40 teams have the same components so it’s going to be a matter of your engineers and crew chiefs figuring out the setups and the drivers figuring out driving techniques that make these cars go around the racetrack fast. We have a lot to learn and a simple rule change that came over from NASCAR about the skew. There is going to be a lot of those changes throughout the course of the year. We keep learning every time we hit the racetrack. I’m sure that is not going to be the last rules change. It’s going to be interesting to see which driver and team get the advantage the quickest.”
He earned his first career Cup win on the Daytona road course last year. Can he get his first oval win a year later in the seasons biggest race?
“I think we are going to be in good shape. We’ve got great drivers, great teams. It will be fun to see who can execute the best.”
The odd thing is, all enter flying under the radar. Ford’s dominated practice and the Duels while Chevrolet’s were the class of the field in qualifying. Now it’s up to the race. Can the Toyota’s go noticed?
Trends says they’ll have one of their drivers win on Sunday. Will they?