By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On Sunday, Denny Hamlin will be going for his second-straight Daytona 500 victory and third in the last five years, but the driver of the No. 11 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing wasn’t always a favorite on the superspeedways.
It took Hamlin getting schooled by restrictor plate masters like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart to turn him from an also-ran at Daytona and Talladega to becoming a perennial favorite at those types of tracks.
“People think of us a lot of times throughout my career as a short track guy. Really, I deem myself a short track guy who has just adapted really well to superspeedway racing,” Hamlin said. “A lot of that has come from watching some of the best do it.
“Tony Stewart, I think is a great example of someone that I learned a lot from on superspeedways. Even though he didn’t win this race, he put himself in position to win a lot of them. He’s the guy that I kind of idolized, looked at the way he did things. Dale Jr. as well. Over the second half of my career, I really have been a student of the game on how can I improve, how can I put myself in a better position to finish these races.
“I think it really took a turn for me really six to seven to eight years ago where I really started paying attention to why is Tony Stewart and Dale Jr. continuing to be up front in these races and I’m continuing to be in the garage or at the infield care center. Like there’s something not right. We got the same equipment, what’s going on?
“I just started studying what they do, how they manage their risk, how they create runs, how they stay up front. I just started learning from it. Then the cars have changed, the rules packages have change, but I’ve continued to evolve how I do it from an analytic standpoint and it’s kind of worked out.”
Having turned the corner in his abilities on the superspeedways, Hamlin noted his confidence heading into Sunday is high, despite the difficulty that comes with repeating in the Great American Race. Should he be able to accomplish the feat, he will be the first to do so since Sterling Marlin went back-to-back for Morgan-McClure in 1994 and 1995.
“It’s tough, but there is more confidence,” Hamlin said. “You know the things you’ve been doing have been successful. I won’t change any of that until it doesn’t work any more and I have to adapt. I think it’s been really a great run we’ve had over the last eight years in particular. We’ve been a factor to win every Daytona 500 it seems like for the last decade. I come here thinking there’s no reason that should be any different.”
Hamlin added that the experience he has picked up over the years has also helped him in being smarter in the way he runs in the pack and has aided in his efforts to avoid the calamity that comes with racing at superspeedways with 39 of your closest friends inches apart.
Since 2012, Hamlin only has two finishes outside the top-10 in the Daytona 500, illustrating how much he has learned in recent years.
“I really trust my intuition and instincts,” he explained. “I mean, I can feel when the level of intensity starts ramping up. There’s been times where I just remove myself from that situation. I’ll just pull out of the draft, go backwards, say that there’s something about to happen here, and I know odds and statistics are going to say in this position I’m sitting in, there’s a high percentage I’m going to be in a wreck here.
“So, I get myself out of it, get to the finish, then go from there. I am up front more, so it seems like you would think the chances of the big one starting, you’re going to be free from it. Over the last few years, the average position from the big one starting has went from sixth to third. Now you have to be even further up front to try to avoid statistically where you’re going to be in it. I think it’s always changing. You got to continue to adapt and make sure you sense and when you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, make sure you get out, put yourself in a position to get to the finish.”
While Hamlin will roll off 21st on Sunday, don’t expect him to stay back there too long. By the time all is said and done, he will likely be one of the drivers to beat for a trip to Daytona’s famed victory lane.