Denny Hamlin comes into this weekend’s Daytona 500 fresh off an explosive 2019 season, where he won six races and reasserted himself as a legitimate championship contender after suffering through a year in the doldrums. The Virginia native, who has two Daytona 500 wins in his career, will look to move into a tie for third on the all-time Daytona 500 win list if he can snag a third Harley J. Earl trophy.
However, there is another feat that hasn’t been accomplished in 25 years that Hamlin has a shot at matching — The repeat.
Only three drivers have ever won the Daytona 500 in back-to-back seasons.
Richard Petty was the first to accomplish it in 1973-74, while Cale Yarborough was able to make it happen in 1983-84. Tennessee’s Sterling Marlin is the last driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500’s. Marlin tackled the feat in 1994 and 1995.
In the two and a half decades since, nobody else has been able to do the same.
While Hamlin forged his path to NASCAR stardom by dominating on the short tracks, he has become a skilled superspeedway driver. Hamlin says he picked up some great tips along the years from some other phenomenal drafters.
“Yeah, I mean, it is. People think of us a lot of times throughout my career as a short track guy,” explained Hamlin. “Really, I deem myself a short track guy who has just adapted really well to superspeedway racing. A lot of that has come from watching some of the best do it. Tony Stewart I think is a great example of someone that I learned a lot from on superspeedways. Even though he didn’t win this race, he put himself in position to win a lot of them. He’s the guy that I kind of idolized, looked at the way he did things. Dale Jr. as well. Over the second half of my career, I really have been a student of the game on how can I improve, how can I put myself in a better position to finish these races.”
According to Hamlin, he relies on his gut in order to be around at the finish of so many superspeedway races.
“I really trust my intuition and instincts,” said Hamlin. “I mean, I can feel when the level of intensity starts ramping up. There’s been times where I just remove myself from that situation. I’ll just pull out of the draft, go backwards, say that there’s something about to happen here, and I know odds and statistics are going to say in this position I’m sitting in, there’s a high percentage I’m going to be in a wreck here. So I get myself out of it, get to the finish, then go from there.”
Supreme drafting prowess, and good instincts are important, but when you pair those attributes with a red-hot team you have situation capable of matching history.
Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team has had a stranglehold on the competition. In fact, JGR won 19 of 36 races in 2019. Could this be the year that finally someone repeats as Daytona 500 champion?
“It’s tough, but there is more confidence,” Hamlin said at the thought of winning the sport’s most iconic race for a second-straight year at Daytona 500 Media Day. “You know the things you’ve been doing have been successful. I won’t change any of that until it doesn’t work any more and I have to adapt. I think it’s been really a great run we’ve had over the last eight years in particular. We’ve been a factor to win every Daytona 500 it seems like for the last decade. I come here thinking there’s no reason that should be any different.”
Hamlin is correct about his penchant for running near the front in the Daytona 500. Over the last eight editions of The Great American Race, Hamlin has two wins — which have come in the last four years — and six top-five finishes. Overall, Hamlin has led laps in seven of the eight Daytona 500 races in that span and he has led a total of 257 laps in that time.
If any active driver would be a prime candidate to join the list of Petty, Yarborough and Marlin — you’d figure Hamlin would be the best bet.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.