DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin was so excited during Monday morning’s Daytona 500 Champion’s Breakfast that he forgot about one of the special gifts given to each champion of The Great American Race.
Hamlin was feted for his second Daytona 500 victory inside the Bill France Room on the second floor of the speedway’s Tickets & Tours Building, receiving a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watch as part of his reward for taking the No. 11 FedEx Toyota to victory lane in the final race of AdventHealth Speedweeks.
“Did I get one of these the last time I won the 500?” Hamlin asked track president Chip Wile, who answered in the affirmative. “This is pretty cool,” he continued.
The special timepiece was a stainless steel and gold edition Rolex, similar in nature to the watches presented each year to the winners of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s traditional crown-jewel event, the eponymous Rolex 24 at Daytona.
For Hamlin, however, the prize that he was most focused on was the Harley J. Earl Trophy, which he hoisted for a second time Sunday night after leading 30 of 207 laps en route to victory lane.
As much as it was for him, Hamlin was glad for his crew, some of whom celebrated winning the Daytona 500 for the first time this year after his team was shuffled and reorganized during the offseason.
“This is a new group of guys. I’m still learning everyone, and they’ve done a good job of bearing with me while I get used to all that, but it’s really special to be able to give all of them a Daytona 500 victory and to win it myself for the second time,” noted Hamlin. “This is a very strong team, all the way around. We banded together, made it happen and I’m proud we were able to pull this one off.”
Hamlin did note that several of the emotions surrounding his second Daytona 500 victory on Sunday were, in fact, different from when he won the race for the first time three years ago.
“It is different this time, in a lot of different ways,” Hamlin said. “My win in 2016 just happened so quickly. We were in the middle of a long green-flag run and the laps were just clicking down … five, four, three, two, one and then it was over. The chaos of the final laps was crazy, but this year with all the red flags and time to prepare for it, everything just seemed to happen slower for me.
“I knew what I needed to do, so I was relaxed and glad that we were able to get the job done,” he added. “Everything went according to plan and now, here we are one more time.”
However, the Chesterfield, Va., native did note that there was one part of his post-race celebration that was different this year compared to 2016.
“We did not get crazy this year, not like last time,” Hamlin laughed. “I learned from my first 500 Media Tour some things not to do, but the fortunate thing is – thank you, NASCAR – that we actually get to go home and get some things together instead of rushing right off into that whirlwind like I had to before.
“I understand it now. This is not my first rodeo,” he added. “I just turned in after our traditional Steak and Shake victory dinner and took some time to soak it all in. It really is special for all of us.”
Following his four-day victory tour for winning The Great American Race, which will include a stop on Live with Kelly and Michael in New York City, Hamlin and crew will turn their focus to Atlanta Motor Speedway and opening the year with back-to-back Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories.
“There’s no letup in this team and we have no intention of slowing down,” said Hamlin.
Crew chief Chris Gabehart agreed with that assessment.
“I don’t mean to discredit or shortchange this win, but I’m always thinking about the next one,” Gabehart stated, with a small smile on his face as he made the declaration. “No doubt about it.”