DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin almost couldn’t help himself at the start of his Daytona 500 qualifying race, when his anxiously tried to charge to the front and shake out all the cobwebs and frustration from his injury-plagued season a year ago.
The move backfired, he found himself mired in traffic and after a deep breath to regroup, used a different game-plan to get to the front.
It was a valuable lesson in patience, one he’ll need today when he tries to become the first driver at Daytona International Speedway to sweep Speedweeks. He opened Daytona with a win in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited and in the second of two 150-mile qualifying races, but those races are only confidence-boosters.
The big daddy is the season-opening Daytona 500, and no driver has ever completed the trifecta.
Oh, what a prize that would be for Hamlin, who sat out five races last season with a fractured vertebra then gamely drove through the pain for the final six months in a failed attempt to salvage his year.
“I think the biggest challenge for myself is keeping the reins back for 400 miles, 450 miles,” he said. “Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you’re still on top and still the best right on lap one. It’s going to be battling those inner demons of wanting to go out there, lead laps, putting yourself in a safe position, but also being conservative and making sure you’re there at the end of the day.”
This is a familiar act at Daytona, where surprise winners often steal the win and heartbreak is the norm. The late Dale Earnhardt won 34 races at Daytona but didn’t win his only Daytona 500 until his 20th try. Trevor Bayne? He won his Daytona 500 debut at the expense of three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, who is 0-for-15 and has lost the race in spectacular fashion. He was passed by Ryan Newman on the last lap in 2008, didn’t get the push he needed on the final restart when Bayne won in 2011 and played second-fiddle to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004.
Like Hamlin, or Kevin Harvick last year, Stewart is among the many drivers who had dominant Speedweeks only to come up empty bidding for the biggest prize. Most notably was 2002 when he was the driver to beat and his engine failed on the second lap, leading to a devastating last-place finish for Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing.
So Gibbs expects nothing today even though both Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, winner of the first qualifying race, have established themselves as two of the favorites.
“I don’t think I ever go into something where I feel like, ‘Hey, we got this thing,’” Gibbs said. “So many things have got to go your way. I think drivers and crew chiefs, they’re more optimistic than I am because I’m always nervous about it.”
Gibbs has every reason to be anxious: A year ago, Kenseth dominated the race only to suffer an engine failure while leading. Moments later, teammate Kyle Busch’s engine also expired.
It’s a nightmare nobody at Toyota wants to relive as the manufacturer embarks on its 10th year in NASCAR. Toyota didn’t move to the Cup Series until 2007, and it was JGR that gave it legitimacy the next season – the year Stewart and Busch nearly won the 500.
But it’s been a series of near-misses in both the Daytona 500 and the race for the Sprint Cup title for Toyota, which finally might have the Harley J. Earl Trophy in its reach.
“This trophy, it’s hard to characterize just how important it would be for our organization,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “Clearly, we’ve got some really strong cars. We’ve got speed, we’ve got capabilities of running up front. We haven’t been able to put it altogether in the past. Certainly, winning, now four races in a row, gives us confidence.”
And confidence, patience and being in the right place at the end is all it takes to win NASCAR’s biggest race. It’s how Bayne got to Victory Lane in 2011, and how any one of the seven rookies in Sunday’s race could repeat the feat.
That includes pole-sitter Austin Dillon, who will lead the field to green in the No. 3 made famous by the late Earnhardt. The number has not been used at Daytona in a Cup race since The Intimidator’s fatal accident on the final lap of the 2001 race, but car owner Richard Childress was finally ready to use it again as his 23-year-old grandson moved to NASCAR’s top level.
Childress has no hesitation in seeing the 3 on the track, and believes strongly that Dillon has given Richard Childress Racing a much-needed boost.
“I know in my heart, today, as I sit here, Dale Earnhardt is smiling down,” Childress said. “He would want to see this 3. He didn’t want it to ever go away. But I felt it was the thing to do right after Daytona, and I know today that he’s accepting this highly. I knew him that well.”
RCR threw itself into preparations for the 500, evidenced not only by Dillon’s pole-winning run but how Earnhardt-Childress engines put five cars in the top 12 during qualifying and swept the front row with Dillon and Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr.
But Truex’s car was wrecked on the last lap of Thursday’s qualifying race when defending race winner Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas. It cost him his starting spot.
“It stinks for the guys who have worked so hard on that car, and have a great race car, only to have that happen on the last corner of the last lap,” Truex said.
He won’t be alone in the back of the field as many heavyweights will start at the rear of the field.
Stewart, who will be in his first points race since breaking his leg in August, will drop to the back because of an unapproved engine change. So will his teammate Danica Patrick, last year’s pole-winner.
Johnson, who has wrecked two cars this Speedweeks, will drop to the back, along with Clint Bowyer, who flipped his car when Johnson ran out of gas.
Greg Biffle believes the veterans in the back of the field will wait until the it’s time to make the right moves to the front.
“I think the people that are starting in the back, for the most part, will be happy to live there for a third, if not two-thirds of the race,” Biffle said. “And then the moon is gonna go full, the eyes are gonna get a stare on them, the jaw will get set and the knuckles will get white. And all bets are off.”