DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin almost couldn’t help himself at the start of his Daytona 500 qualifying race, when he 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 Sunday 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.”
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. 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 second 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 on Sunday 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.
Gibbs has every reason to be anxious: A year ago, Kenseth dominated the race only to suffer an engine failure while leading. Teammate Kyle Busch’s engine also expired.
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. “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 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 crash 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.
“I know in my heart, today, as I sit here, Dale Earnhardt is smiling down,” Childress said.
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.
Truex won’t be alone in the back of the field as many heavyweights will start at the rear of the field.
Stewart 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.