DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin entered elite company on Monday night after taking the checkered flag first in the 62nd annual Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
With his third victory in The Great American Race, Hamlin became just the sixth driver in NASCAR Cup Series history to win the biggest race in the sport three or more times.
Hamlin ties NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett at a hat trick of Daytona 500 triumphs. Those three Daytona 500 wins are among the 38 Cup victories overall that Hamlin has.
Only Cale Yarborough (four) and Richard Petty (seven) – also NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees – have put their names on the iconic Harley J. Earl perpetual trophy more than Hamlin has.
It’s a fact that’s not lost on the Chesterfield, Va., short track ace, who also became just the fourth man to win the Daytona 500 in consecutive years, joining Petty (1973-74), Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) in that category.
“Man, I need time to process it,” said Hamlin of the historical significance of his third Daytona 500 score. “I was saying actually at lunch today, I didn’t feel good about the race … not because of my car or the speed, just that we’d managed to get to the finish of these races for a lot of years in a row, and it’s like ‘how have we just kept avoiding the inevitable wrecks?’
“Really, we had a great strategy there at the end of stage one to put us up front at the beginning into stage two, and I was able to kind of maintain good track position at that point and obviously got shuffled, but it worked out in the end.”
Considering the kind of company that Hamlin now shares – all of the above names mentioned are Hall of Famers, with the exception of Marlin – it seems almost inevitable that once Hamlin retires from competition, his name will eventually be called to join them and he’ll receive an iconic blue jacket.
But Hamlin isn’t ready to think about that yet. In his mind, he still has a long way to go to catch up.
“When I think about the names, and Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) is always quick to remind me of what a win would do here, where does it put you and the names that it puts you with … I consider those (guys) professors of racing like this, and I’m just a guy that’s a student (of the draft),” Hamlin said.
“It’s been great to be on the run that we’ve been on the last five years at this race track … and really, it’s been eight years or so that we’ve been fantastic here, but I just can’t fathom that we did it again, being that it’s harder to win today than ever before because all the cars are so close together and the attrition and the wrecks do take their toll as it goes on,” Hamlin continued. “It’s harder to win (the Daytona 500) now than ever. To win it again, I don’t know what to think.
“You’re going to have to check with me in Las Vegas, but it’s a great feat and I’m proud of our team.”