BY AARON BURNS
No driver has won three consecutive Daytona 500s, and there’s a good reason: it’s not easy.
Denny Hamlin made it look easy for much of Sunday’s race. Hamlin tried to do what Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Sterling Marlin couldn’t – and for 175 laps, Hamlin appeared set for a monumental victory.
The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota won Stages 1 and 2, led 98 laps and was poised to hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy for the fourth time in his career. Hamlin’s final pit stop, however, threw a wrench into his plans with an all-too familiar phrase: too fast on pit road.
This time, however, it wasn’t the driver exceeding the speed limit.
It was his pit crew.
Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch endured – can one endure something good and not like it? – lightning-fast stops in the closing laps that put their cars out far enough ahead of the oncoming lead pack that they were freight-trained within seconds.
Hamlin fell to 12th and could only recover to fifth at the finish. His Daytona 500 results since 2014: second, fourth, first, 17th, third, first, first, fifth. You could say Hamlin has figured out The Great American Race.
But it didn’t help him stomach what could’ve been on Sunday night.
“I’m certainly disappointed because we had a dominant car,” Hamlin said. “We won stages and led a lot of laps. I hate being helpless, not being able to do anything and not being able to use the skill set that I have to make moves. When I have cars around me a little bit, I can shuffle them and make my way to the front. We were controlling the lines and controlling the pace. It was easy for a little while, but I knew it would be all about that last pit stop if we had no other cautions.
“It’s the first time that lack of numbers (in drafting partners) played a role in the finish. We were three seconds out there (in front) at a place where you don’t want to be three seconds out there. I don’t know what we could’ve done differently. … I was 12th in line and I thought, you know, I had to get some energy going and get something moving. Our fate was sealed when we got shuffled and everyone committed to going single-file until the last lap. It didn’t work out.”
On the bright side, Hamlin’s team gets to keep its car for the first time since 2017, because the race-winning car takes a year’s residence in the Daytona International Speedway museum.
“That’s just the way it goes,” Hamlin said. “We were the ones who didn’t execute – or executed too well – on that final pit stop. Our fate was sealed, so we got the best finish we possibly could.”
Hamlin should be the man to beat when the field comes to the green flag for the 2022 Daytona 500.
As for three in a row? It’ll have to wait.