Denny Hamlin controlled so much of the Daytona 500 that he made it look easy. And in fact, he admitted that controlling the lanes and the event’s pace was easy for a while.
“But I knew it was all going to be about that last pit stop if we didn’t have any other cautions,” Hamlin said.
There weren’t any. The final stage went green and forced teams to make their last pit stops under racing conditions as they entered the final 30 laps. Hamlin and three Toyota teammates were the last to make their pit stops, which came with 28 laps to go.
Not only did they pit last, but they didn’t have the numbers for the draft. Plus, Hamlin came off pit road quite a bit ahead of Kyle Busch, who was quite a bit ahead of the next Gibbs car. It didn’t take much time before they were swallowed up into the pack, and when the leaderboard cycled through, Hamlin had gone from leading the race to 13th in the single-file freight train.
“I don’t know what we could have done different,” Hamlin said. “Maybe back up to the 18 (Kyle Busch) trying to get up to speed faster, but I don’t know. Our fate was sealed when we got shuffled there, and then everyone committed to going single file until the last lap. I thought for sure the Chevys would make a move.
“I was 12th or something in line, and I’m like, I’m not going to win from here, so I got to get some energy going, get something moving, tried to shuffle a few times. It didn’t work. Nobody was wanting to go anywhere.
“And then, once we came up on some laps cars, I was able to gain four spots to get to eighth, and I’m like, OK, I can do something from here with two to go, as long as they go with two to go. But everyone thought they could win from 10th on the last lap. So, it didn’t work out, and our fate was sealed, and so we got the best finish honestly we possibly could.”
Hamlin tried to do everything he could from the back of the line. He pulled out of line and tried to side-draft the driver in front of him, hoping to pick them off one-by-one. It never worked.
At the white flag, Hamlin was eighth in line. A multi-car wreck in Turn 3 with the leaders opened the door for one last charge, but the race ended under caution, and he was scored in fifth place.
While his bid to become the first driver in history to win three consecutive Daytona 500s came up short, Hamlin acknowledged it was a good showing for his Joe Gibbs Racing team. Hamlin was the class of the field with 98 laps led and wins in both stages. He was happy with everything but the final result.
“I’m certainly disappointed simply because we had a dominant car,” said Hamlin. “We won the stages and led a lot of laps. But I hate being helpless. I hate not being able to do anything. Not being able to use the skill set that I have to make moves.
“If I ever could get cars moving around a little bit, I can shuffle (them) and get my way to the front. But the single file, especially when you had the manufacturer alliance up at the front, I just thought for sure the Chevys would be like, OK, we’re not going to win from here we have to do something. But nobody wanted to. It’s just kind of the way it goes. We’re the ones that executed too well and put ourselves in the back there for that final pit stop.”
Monday was the first superspeedway race since the summer of 2019 that Hamlin finished outside the top four.