DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Two-time defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin will be pursuing history when the 63rd running of The Great American Race kicks off at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Hamlin, who is chasing his fourth Daytona 500 triumph overall, is seeking to become the first driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500s.
Hamlin joined an elite club of back-to-back winners of the Daytona 500 with his second victory in a row last February, joining Richard Petty (1973-’74), Cale Yarborough (1983-’84), and Sterling Marlin (1994-’95) in that exclusive category.
But a third-straight win Sunday would place Hamlin in a class all his own, and he knows it’s an important moment.
“This is a big opportunity for us, for my team and for myself personally; I never would have imagined that we’d be in this position by any means, especially five years ago when we didn’t have any (Daytona 500 wins),” said Hamlin. “I always think, in these situations and anytime you get asked, about all the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn’t make the right decision at the end to finish it off.
“(A third consecutive victory) would be by far the biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything.”
Though Hamlin recognizes there is an element of luck involved in winning multiple superspeedway-style races in the NASCAR Cup Series, he’s also “extremely proud” that his team is even in position to achieve the coveted three-peat. In Hamlin’s estimation, winning the Daytona 500 is tougher than ever before.
“I find the most pride in where we are right now because I think it’s harder than it has been in history,” said Hamlin of winning the Daytona 500. “I mean, go back and watch races from 2004, 2005 … there were just five or six superior cars that could pull away from the pack, or they just were better. The cars were strung out more, the wrecks weren’t as big and you didn’t have as much attrition as what you have now. It’s harder. It is truly, in my mind, harder to win the Daytona 500 now because the field is closer. The chances of getting in wrecks are higher and everyone’s car is so close. It’s very, very difficult.
“I just think that it is a skill game, but sometimes you get unlucky in that skill game. And I think that there are a lot of guys that are very, very good on the superspeedways that just have been very, very unlucky in the last few years,” Hamlin continued. “We’ve been fortunate, we’ve been on the other side of it. That hammer hasn’t hit on us yet, but I mean, we could break out of the next five Daytona 500s. You just don’t know, right? We’ve been fortunate, but it’s still, in the end, a skill game and making sure you’re putting yourself in the right position.
“I take a lot of pride in what we’ve done. I really do. It’s definitely not by chance or by accident.”
Hamlin is the oddsmakers’ favorite to win Sunday’s Daytona 500, coming in at 8-1 via BetOnline.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion, joked that if you’re bringing odds into the conversation, Hamlin should take his Daytona 500 success and make a trip to the casino with it.
“Just to be running at the end is pretty impressive in two straight (Daytona 500s),” Keselowski said. “The odds — you probably have about a 25 percent chance of just being alive at the finish of the race, so if you multiply 25 by 25 … you have about a six percent chance of being running at two consecutive Daytona races, let alone winning those races. It would be a heck of a turn on any kind of card table, but he’s been able to pull it off.
“Much credit to him. He’s a good racer,” added Keselowski of Hamlin. “Surviving is the most important thing, and then once you survive, you have to capitalize, and the fact that he’s been able to survive is really pretty amazing.”
Though most of practice Saturday was rained out, Hamlin felt good about his No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry during drafting runs Wednesday afternoon, even though he finished a disappointing 13th in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying race on Thursday night.
Hamlin will line up 25th, hoping it’s his time to write a new page in the record books at the World Center of Racing.
“It took about two laps of practice before I was like, ‘Wow, this car is doing a lot of really good things,’” Hamlin noted. “Even though I’ve run in a straight line with my teammates (in past years), there have been times where I couldn’t get to the person in front of me or I couldn’t get the person behind me close. It seemed like my car this week was able to do that right away. With that said, I’m very excited about it and the possibilities.
“I’ve said before that superspeedway racing is a skill game, but sometimes you get unlucky. We just hope to not get unlucky and at least give ourselves a shot at the end,” Hamlin added. “You just hope that, when it matters, you make the right decisions. Sometimes your fate is out of your hands and you get unlucky, but I feel we’re in a really good place and I like where my car is at going into this race.”
The 63rd Daytona 500 goes green at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, with live coverage on FOX, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.