DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When it comes to perennial favorites at Daytona Int’l Speedway, drivers who are always in the conversation as far as being successful at the 2.5-mile oval, Denny Hamlin isn’t usually mentioned on the short list.
But whether his name is in that first breath of contenders or not, Hamlin has slowly but surely inked himself in the history books at the World Center of Racing as a master of the Daytona craft.
Think about the Virginia native’s resume for a few moments.
He’s won two of the past four Daytona 500s. He’s won three Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona since 2008. He’s won three Busch Clashes, including becoming the first rookie to win the Clash back in 2006.
And Hamlin even has a NASCAR Xfinity Series win on his resume at Daytona, taking the checkered flag in the second-tier division’s July spectacular at the facility in 2008 with Joe Gibbs Racing.
In short, the driver who cut his teeth on the short tracks and bullrings of the Southeast has found an attitude that works for superspeedway racing and thrived with it.
“People think of (me) a lot of times throughout my career as being a short-track guy, and really, I deem myself a short-track guy who has just adapted really well to superspeedway racing,” Hamlin said Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day. “A lot of that has come from watching some of the best do it.”
Hamlin’s categorization of “the best” in superspeedway racing calls to mind two prominent drivers in Daytona’s storied history: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin’s former teammate, Tony Stewart.
When Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 in 2004, Hamlin – not even a thought in the NASCAR Cup Series garage at that time – joined the third-generation star in victory lane that February afternoon.
Of course, Earnhardt Jr. went on to earn 17 wins at Daytona across all series (third all-time), and Hamlin even finished second to the perennial NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver in the 2014 Daytona 500.
Then there was Stewart, who raced with Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing from 2006 through 2008 in the Cup Series and earned 19 career Daytona victories, second only to Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona record 34 wins.
Stewart may not have won the Daytona 500 like Hamlin has, but Hamlin noted he felt Stewart was, at least, in position to do so more often than not.
“He’s the guy that I kind of idolized and looked at the way he did things,” said Hamlin of Stewart. “I feel like over the second half of my career (I) have really been a student of the game on, how can I improve? How can I put myself in a better position to finish these races?”
Hamlin has certainly managed to be in contention over the past five to 10 years in the Daytona 500, masterfully finding ways to stay out of trouble by trusting his instincts over the course of the race.
“I can feel when the level of intensity starts ramping up, and there have been times where I just remove myself from that situation,” Hamlin noted. “I’ll just pull out of the draft, go backwards, say that there’s something about to happen here, and I know (the) odds and statistics are going to say (that) 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, and then go from there.
“You just have to continue to adapt and make sure you sense that when you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you make sure you get out and put yourself in a position to get to the finish.”
Sunday afternoon, the two-time Daytona 500 champion will chase the Harley J. Earl Trophy for a third time.
If he can successfully win The Great American Race again, Hamlin would join two exclusive clubs in the process: becoming the sixth driver to win the 500 three or more times and just the fourth to stand in victory lane in back-to-back years.
While he knows the feat won’t be easy, it’s one that Hamlin is eager to try and accomplish.
“It’s tough, but there is more confidence,” Hamlin said in regards to chasing a repeat Daytona 500 triumph. “You know that the things you’ve been doing have been successful, and I won’t change any of them until it doesn’t work anymore and I have to adapt.
“I think that it’s been really a great run we’ve had over the last eight years in particular,” he added. “We’ve been a factor to win every Daytona 500, it seems like, for the last decade, so I come here thinking that there’s no reason that should be any different.”
The 62nd annual Daytona 500 takes the green flag Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET, live on FOX, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.