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Why Denny Hamlin’s Quest for a 4th Daytona Win Could Be a Failure

Published 02/02/2024, 4:45 AM EST

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The Daytona 500 has always been a tough nut to crack, even for a racing titan like Dale Earnhardt. It took him more than two decades to clinch a victory there, despite kicking off his quest in the ’70s. When you think about legends like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Bobby Allison, it seems they had a knack for making winning at Daytona look easy. But for the new kids on the block like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and even Denny Hamlin, it’s a whole different game. Yet, speaking of Hamlin, he’s the only modern-day speedster to etch his name among the top 20 victors at Daytona.

Hamlin’s been on the hunt for his fourth Daytona trophy since his last triumph in 2020, but has come up short. Despite his track record of steady performances, winning the top spot in this year’s opener is no guarantee. What hurdles might stand in his way?

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Last season, Hamlin gave us a heads-up on his podcast, predicting a demolition derby on the track during the regular season finale. And boy, did we get a heart-stopper with Ryan Preece‘s crash that had everyone on edge. Earlier during the first race of the season at Daytona, Hamlin, who crossed the finish line in 17th, shared his woes, saying, “This race is just becoming more and more unpredictable every single year. It’s so hard to pass in these Next Gen cars on superspeedways. The racing was two-by-two, so you just can’t go to the back of the pack at any point and come back, especially towards the end of the race.”

This year’s Daytona opener is shaping up to be a beast of a challenge for Hamlin, especially since he’s fresh off shoulder surgery. A bit of rough and tumble in a non-racing event led to an unexpected three-month timeout. Though he hoped for a swift bounce-back, fate had other plans, and the surgery turned out to be a bigger deal than he thought.

Hamlin’s been bending over backward, quite literally, to regain his strength and mobility. He’s banking on wearing himself out at The Clash to build up his stamina for the Daytona 500. According to him, The Clash is the toughest nut to crack on his simulator training circuit. But it’s not just his shoulder that’s feeling the heat. With Kyle Busch out of the picture and Martin Truex Jr’s future hanging by a thread, Hamlin’s become JGR’s only hope. That’s a heavy load to bear, especially with a healing shoulder.

And let’s not forget about Toyota’s ticking clock. The folks at Toyota Racing are drumming their fingers, eager for top-tier results. David Wilson from Toyota Racing Development didn’t mince words on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, laying out their stakes for the season: four cars in the playoffs, two in the final showdown at Phoenix. Anything short of that is going to sting, especially after Hamlin’s near-miss last year.

Moreover, he’s up against heavyweights like Ricky Stenhouse Jr, who’s notched up two Daytona 500 wins under his belt, and Kyle Busch, who nearly grabbed the crown last year and has tasted victory on this track before. Let’s not forget Joey Logano, who stormed to victory at Daytona in 2022. Outrunning this pack of seasoned pros is no walk in the park for him. For now, Hamlin’s got his sights set on winning his first championship, but he’s got this nagging feeling, a curse, he calls it, that’s been dogging his tracks.

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Hamlin’s been on the brink of victory more times than we can count, especially remembering last season’s heartbreak when he and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing crew got the boot after the Round of 8 showdown at Martinsville Speedway.

Back in 2010, Hamlin was in prime form, bagging eight victories in what was a golden era for him, but the championship trophy remained just out of reach. Fast forward to 2019, and there he was again, leading the pack at Homestead-Miami Speedway, only for a well-intended tweak to backfire, sending his chances up in smoke.

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With four shots at the final four and never finishing above third, it’s been a series of ‘so close yet so far’ for Hamlin. Marty Smith from ESPN put it best: “Denny wants that championship more than he wants oxygen.”

Last season’s exit was a mixtape of mishaps, with a technical snag at Homestead setting the stage for an anticlimactic finale at Martinsville. Despite ruling the roost at one of his favorite tracks, he couldn’t outpace Ryan Blaney, missing the championship cut by a whisker.

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Reflecting on his string of near-misses, Hamlin confessed to Netflix, “I can’t draw any conclusions on why, year after year, things out of my control have happened that have taken us from in control to out of it. It’s just been bad luck, honestly. I am the black cat of death. I’m (expletive) cursed.”

Despite topping the charts with 20 wins since 2019, more than any other driver, Hamlin’s trophy case is missing the one that matters most, a stark contrast to his contemporaries like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr, who’ve all tasted championship glory.

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Written by:

Neha Dwivedi

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Neha Dwivedi is a NASCAR Writer at EssentiallySports. As a journalist, she religiously believes in the power of research, which allows her readers to dive deep into her stories and experience the detailed nuances of the sport like never before. Being proficient with Core Sport and Live Event Coverage, she has written multiple copies on the top entities of Stock Car Racing, like Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, and Tony Stewart.
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Edited by:

Ariva Debnath