Denny Hamlin felt he was third- or fourth-best Sunday afternoon on the Daytona road course, and he ended up with a third-place finish. Most importantly, Hamlin believes he’s closing the gap to Chase Elliott, who has been the best in the series on road courses.
“I think I’m catching up,” Hamlin said. “I think I got 20 to 30 percent there today. He’s still lightning fast. Honestly, when he got the lead, I beat him maybe a couple of laps, but who knows? He’s probably just sitting back and one-handing this thing just cruising.
“I definitely feel like I gained a little bit today, but I still got some work to do for sure. There’s nothing I could see honestly that was, like, earth-shattering — ‘Wow, he’s just killing me here.’ It’s a little bit everywhere. It’s just going to take some time for me to figure out.”
In the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253, Hamlin started fourth and spent part of the opening stage trying to keep pace with Elliott. But Elliott beat Joey Logano for the stage win by over three seconds, with Hamlin even further behind. Hamlin, however, won the second stage.
Hamlin took the top spot from A.J. Allmendinger while on fresher tires after pitting when a caution flew early in the second stage. But he only led a total of five laps Sunday afternoon.
“I was hanging around the third-fastest or the fourth-fastest all day; that’s kind of what our FedEx Camry had,” Hamlin said. “I’ve got to continue to get better, but that’s kind of what we had. I was kind of confused on what to do with the strategy there, but obviously a great two days for JGR and this whole team.
Elliott entered the day on a four-race road course winning streak. Hamlin finished third to Elliott in the 2019 Watkins Glen race, second to Elliott on the Daytona road course last August, but then Hamlin led the most laps in the Busch Clash at Daytona on February 9.
Daytona was the first of seven road course races on the 2021 schedule. The next road course race is Circuit of The Americas in Austin on May 23, the first time NASCAR will run that course. Track time is how Hamlin anticipates continuing to get better on the lefts and rights.
“I think in general, the more that we run road courses, the tighter the field is going to get,” Hamlin said. “Everyone is going to get better. The gap is going to shrink to everyone. Chase passed the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.). Those two guys got a gap right now to fifth to 10th to 20th. That will shrink the more we do road racing.
“For me, I’m stuck at par right now. I can’t break par. I’m just right there, third to fourth fastest, and that’s where I’m at. I think the more times I run, the tighter that gap is going to get.”
Of Hamlin’s 44 career wins, just one has come on a road course, at Watkins Glen in 2016.