By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There’s something about Denny Hamlin and Daytona.
With three wins in the last six years, Hamlin has found a knack for making it happen at the World Center of Racing, especially in the biggest race of the NASCAR Cup Series season – the Daytona 500.
Though Hamlin’s wins in the Great American Race came in the Gen 6 car, this year’s running of the race is a whole new ballgame.
With the debut of the Next Gen car, Hamlin and every other driver in the field have been scrambling to learn as much as possible about how the revolutionary new car will behave in the draft once the green flag drops and all 40 cars are hurtling around the high banks of Daytona’s 2.5-mile layout.
Following a handful of practices, the Cup Series got its best look at how the new car would perform at speed during Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacation Duels, with most eye-opening thing being the tendency for the Next Gen car to lose the draft, especially with more than a handful of them in a line – a departure from superspeedway racing in recent years.
“There’s a lot of factors that goes into cars losing the draft,” Hamlin explained. “I tried my best. I lined up and did everything I was supposed to do. I was at the tail end – this is once I got lapped by the Toyotas because I was trying to push them forward and I couldn’t hang on. There’s nothing I could’ve done short of telling the person in front of me where to run on the race track to allow me to stay in there, but you can’t do it.
“These cars lose so much engine power behind others. It’s tough. It looks like four is the number. You can stay in the tail end of the four-car (draft), but once it gets to five the speeds kick up where that last car is really in trouble. I think that while we can say that the race can look like this or that or there’s only half the field. I do think a lot of the elements that you saw last night will happen on the Sunday where the field gets strung out pretty wide.”
The Duels also provided two different outcomes, with the first being a relatively tame race that saw Brad Keselowski score the first win for RFK Racing and the second ending with Joey Logano in the outside wall following an ill-timed block.
Previous years have seen closing rates be a big concern at the superspeedways and thus far, that seems to be less of a factor in the Next Gen car.
Will that affect the Daytona 500 when the chips are on the line? Only time will tell. Regardless of how it plays out, Hamlin noted it will definitely be something to watch on Sunday.
“I do think things happen a little bit slower in this car,” Hamlin said. “I know that’s hard to believe after [Thursday] night with the late block. The runs are produced a little bit slower. You have to be methodical with how you produce that run and when you pull out you’ve got to figure out how am I going to clear because there’s just not as much momentum and energy built up as what we had.
“I can’t say that I have the answer to it because I don’t. I haven’t been in a situation where it’s been okay, I’ve been 10th place and I was still able to win inside five laps to go. Talladega last year – or a few years ago – we were 29th on the first green-white checkered and we won. Who knows? There’s so much energy in the pack.
“Now this, I think this will be a little bit different. Just to caution everyone, the racing could look a little different from what we’ve had in the past. It doesn’t mean it that it won’t be a great race. I think we’ve seen last lap or second to last lap pass for both Duels so you can build some energy and get some exciting finishes. It just might look differently to get to that point.”
Even with all the new the Next Gen car brings, the more things change, the more they stay the same. After all, Daytona is still Daytona and when it comes down to it, Hamlin explained that drivers will have to be selfish in the race to put themselves in position for the win.
“You have to be selfish obviously,” Hamlin said. “You can’t win if you’re content on just helping someone else. If I help someone else there are selfish reasons behind it. It might look like I’m trying to help someone – I’m trying to help myself. It’s just kind of the way it is.
“In this world of manufacturer alliances and all that stuff that has really been a prominent part of our racing, the bottom line is I’ve made a career at superspeedways the last 10 years just counting on other people being selfish.
“Then, when the rubber hits the road at the end of the race, the guy in eighth place pushing seven of the same manufacturers in front of him eventually is going to get tired of waiting and know that his time has run out and he has to make a move and that’s typically when I capitalize. That’s typically how it’s worked in the past and drivers will always be selfish, especially at the end of the 500.”
If Hamlin is to add a fourth Daytona 500 to his resume, he’ll have his work cut out for him, starting deep in the field in 30th, but with his history, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota should be in the mix at some point during the afternoon.
The 64th running of the Great American Race kicks off at 2:30 pm Sunday on FOX.