LAS VEGAS, NV — Denny Hamlin is a big stick and ball sport fan. So, to say that he’s a student of the game in NASCAR, would resonate well within the Virginia native. For Hamlin, he went from a struggling superspeedway racer to arguably the best in the NASCAR Cup Series today.
On Monday night, Hamlin became just the sixth driver in the history of the sport to win the Daytona 500 three or more times. What’s even more impressive is, all three wins have come in the last five years. Counter that with his best finish in his first six Daytona 500 tries being 17th and you get a complete turn around from the start of his career to now.
“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday from the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races. It just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”
Hamlin, said that this was a very weird and emotional week for him. While he wanted to celebrate his Daytona 500 triumph, he didn’t feel like it was right to do so because of his fellow competitor, Ryan Newman, being hospitalized down the street from the Daytona International Speedway.
How can you celebrate a win when a friend is in the hospital dealing with serious injuries that was suffered in a last lap crash that helped allow Hamlin to win? It just didn’t feel right to him.
Hamlin, like Newman, has two daughters of his own and he felt terrible for what had happened. He didn’t feel like celebrating. All he thought about was Newman’s well being.
While some people thought otherwise with how Hamlin did do a celebratory burnout following his ‘500 win, he said that he didn’t know then how bad that the crash was. He was focusing on winning and had no idea that Newman had even gotten upside down until seeing a replay in victory lane.
“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to Blaney.” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.
“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.
“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).
“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”
Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch may have two championships compared to Hamlin’s none, but Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three Harley J. Earl trophies in his collection.
“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin’s superspeedway abilities in the Gen 6 car, the current model. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’
“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.
“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”