“Who you got?”
A fellow media member threw out the question as we made our way down pit road to stage for the Daytona 500 post-race bullpen. As we did, the race was getting ready to go into its first overtime attempt, which was before our false sense of security about the dangers inherent in modern racing would be shattered by Ryan Newman’s horrific crash coming to the checkered flag. It was when the only thought that mattered was who would win the 62nd Daytona 500, and we were relishing the adrenaline and excitement.
I hesitated before giving my answer, even though I knew who I wanted to choose. There were still plenty of drivers who could pull off the win and provide an intriguing story.
Newman was in contention after he had led at the white flag in the Busch Clash a week prior. His Roush Fenway Racing teammate Chris Buescher also sat in the top five.
Ryan Blaney had never won the Daytona 500 before and was in the mix, as were Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, and Bowyer was amped to try and earn his first Daytona 500 victory on the heels of his beloved Kansas City Chiefs winning the Super Bowl.
Eventually, I turned around and said, “the 11.”
Denny Hamlin held serve on the first overtime attempt. The second overtime attempt and run to the checkered flag off Turn 4 are what has been seared in everyone’s mind since. And from that moment, nothing has mattered but Newman’s condition.
For Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing, once they realized the severity of the accident, their victory lane celebration was muted. Gibbs even apologized in victory lane for his team celebrating on the frontstretch, and repeated it to reporters in the media center.
And when the winning team eventually made their way inside for what is usually an extensive press conference about winning the sport’s biggest race, the excitement was hard to find. Questions were asked, but the room was eerily quiet and stiff, and Hamlin, Gibbs, and crew chief Chris Gabehart were put in the unenviable position of trying to discuss winning the Dayton 500 when they lwould have rather been somewhere else.
The press conference lasted 12 minutes, 35 seconds.
Now, a few days removed from the action and with encouraging updates about Newman’s condition continuing to flow from the team, it seems appropriate to analyze what we saw. Hamlin winning the Daytona 500 was not all that surprising, and there was a reason that he was the first person that came to mind for a post-race interview when the race was winding down with him still in contention.
With a third victory in the Daytona 500, Hamlin joined elite company with three or more wins in the event. He is tied with NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, and Bobby Allison, and is just one of 12 repeat winners of the Daytona 500.
Hamlin has won the Daytona 500 more times than seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson (two), the late Dale Earnhardt (one), as well as other former champions like Matt Kenseth (two) and Kurt Busch (one). Hamlin is also the first driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95.
“The historical side of things, I don’t know, I need time to process it,” said Hamlin on Monday night. “I was saying actually at lunch today, I’m like, I don’t feel good about today. Not because of my car or the speed, just we’ve managed to get to the finish of these races for a lot of years in a row, and it’s like how we have just kept avoiding the inevitable, which is the wrecks. Really, we had a great strategy there at the end of Stage 1 to put us up front at the beginning (of) Stage 2, and I was able to kind of maintain good track position at that point, and obviously, got shuffled. But it worked out.
“But when I think about the names… and Chris [Gabehart] 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 professors of racing like this, and I’m just a guy that’s a student, and it’s been great to be on the run that we’ve been on the last five years at the racetrack – well, more than five. It’s been eight years or so that we’ve been fantastic here.
“But I don’t know. I just can’t fathom, being that it’s harder to win today than ever because all the cars are so close together and with all the attrition, the wrecks. It’s harder to win now than ever. To win it again, I don’t know. You’re going to have to check in with me next week in Las Vegas.”
During Media Day the previous Thursday, when I asked Hamlin if he thought Daytona was one of ‘his’ places, he said yes. How could he not? As pointed out in the subsequent story, Hamlin has the most wins at the track of any driver who was in Sunday’s field.
Of those still running when the race was set for overtime, Hamlin appeared to have the fastest car. He also has the knowledge and skillset to know where he needs to position himself, which is why he took the outside lane on the restarts to protect his right-rear quarter panel. And once out front, the 39-year-old has developed into one of the best in the business of pacing the lanes.
For the last few years, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been two of the first names mentioned as favorites on superspeedways. Or any Ford driver in general, given the way the manufacturer’s drivers have successfully worked together in recent years.
But from now on, when someone asks, ‘who do you have’, Denny Hamlin is the answer. Especially when it comes to Daytona.