By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 63rd Daytona 500 wasn’t the night Denny Hamlin made history. Instead, he finished a gut punching fifth after leading a race-high 98 of 200 laps.
Entering the race, Hamlin looked to become the first driver to win three straight Daytona 500s and join Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty as the only guys to score at least four victories.
For much of the race, it appeared that Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry was the car to beat once more. Only this time, it appeared to be rather convincing as he was one of the few that could move all over the track with great composure.
It was evident when he won the first two stages, fending off his competition such as his driver Bubba Wallace, 2007 winner Kevin Harvick and 2018 winner Austin Dillon to score valuable stage and playoff points.
The beginning of the end took place during the final green flag pit stops. Hamlin brought his car for service with 28 laps remaining and appeared to be fine and dandy. Problem was that he had a tremendous lead and was left alone as Kyle Busch wasn’t able to help him.
Consequently, a slew of Ford and Chevrolet drivers hunted him down with Joey Logano leading the parade. Hamlin was shuffled out in line and fell out of the top-10. With nobody making a move until the final two laps, Hamlin saw his three-peat aspirations fading away.
“We were too far out front. We got on-and-off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack,” Hamlin on his final stop.
“I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth. I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything.
“I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy – in the area where I can make something happen. Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that execute too good.”
Although he was able to avoid the last lap crash that wiped out Team Penske’s Logano, Brad Keselowski and Austin Cindrc in Turn 3, Hamlin made it through unscathed and finished fifth.
Hamlin voiced his disappointment on the final stop, but realized that a fifth is better than 12th.
“I didn’t see (what happened at the end), I was too far back. We didn’t execute too good on pit road. It was just like the 125 (Duel race),” said Hamiln. “We came out in front of everybody, and didn’t have any help to get up to speed. They all blew by us because they were single file, so it just took away the power that I got and that’s getting through traffic.
“The fact we came back to fifth there from 12th on the last couple of laps is pretty good.”
Hamiln will enter the Daytona road course next Sunday with the regular season points lead. He’ll be ahead of Austin Dillon by four points and eight over Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell.