Denny Hamlin placing extra importance on this year’s Daytona 500

(Greg Engle)

Denny Hamlin readily acknowledges that when he shows up at Daytona International Speedway, he is a race favorite. He’s earned that distinction as a former Daytona 500 winner.

But this year a victory in the sport’s biggest race wouldn’t only be of historical significance of but put an end to the longest winless streak in the 38-year old Virginian’s decorated Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. Last year he did not win a race for the first time since his 2006 rookie season.

“I feel pretty optimistic,’’ Hamlin said, sitting down to meet with reporters during the annual Daytona 500 Media Day. “I would say about the same as usual to be honest with you.

“I thought The Clash (last Sunday afternoon) kind of gave us an indication that we were able to kind of get up front even starting last. We got up front in a timely manner. No surprises really from that, so there’s no reason to think otherwise that we can’t win.”

This year, his showing in the Feb. 17 Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusNASCAR Radio) will be especially important and, frankly, sentimental as he has dedicated his season to one of his biggest supporters, J.D. Gibbs, 49, who passed away last month after a long illness.

Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs Racing founder Joe Gibbs, died on Jan. 11 from degenerative neurological disease. J.D. was not only president of the NASCAR championship organization but he was the person who signed a 23-year old Hamlin to the team in 2005. It was a relationship established on talent but built on equal parts friendship and business. And this week, Hamlin still looked pained and sentimental thinking of the loss.

“It’ll be super important [to do well],’’ Hamlin said. “Everyone knows how important he was for me and my career and everything he did for us, so certainly having success on track will be crucial for that. Now that I pledged $111 for every lap that we lead, it’s going to be important for me to get up front and get up front often.”

Up front is a reasonable and likely place to find Hamlin at Daytona International Speedway. His work in the Daytona 500 – specifically – and Speedweeks in general, is undoubtedly a career highlight reel. He is the 2016 Daytona 500 winner, earned three victories in the Duel at Daytona qualifying races and three wins in the Advance Auto Parts Clash – including his career first Cup-level victory as a rookie in the 2006 Clash non-points race.

His 267 laps led in the Daytona 500 is most in this year’s field as are his 407 total laps led at Daytona International Speedway (also including the summer Coke Zero 400).

Hamlin is also among the sport’s most elite company winning both the Clash and the Daytona 500 in the same year – something that’s occurred only six times total.

This season Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota will have a new crew chief in Chris Gabehart, who moved up from JGR’s NASCAR Xfinity Series stable. Interestingly, as much pressure as there is in the sport’s most celebrated race, Hamlin thinks the Daytona 500 restrictor plate race may well be the best kind of transition for a new crew chief.

“I think it’s actually a good race to start with a new crew chief because you’re not really talking about handling that much,’’ Hamlin said. “It’s a good one to just kind of get your feet wet on the communication side of things. What his lingo is on the radio versus mine, so I think it’s actually a good start to the year.

“Even for the drivers that are in new situations to start a year on a superspeedway where you’re not really having to fix the car much. It’s kind of more about the driver and how he strategically makes his way through the pack.”

A win or even a good showing in the 500 would certainly continue the kind of positive energy Hamlin showed in the end of last year.

He finished a season-best runner-up twice (at Dover, Del. and Martinsville, Va.) during the 10-race 2018 Playoffs to end the season and finished 11th in the overall standings.  He earned four pole positions and sat on pole for the season finale at Homestead, Fla.

It’s all eyes ahead.

“I’m looking forward to this one more than looking back on the last one simply because there’s just nothing I can change from this past year,’’ Hamlin said. “I couldn’t help the bad breaks that we had or the things that went wrong. All you can do is just figure out how can that not happen again.

“With a new crew chief, you’re obviously also working on what do we need to do to communicate better? What do you need from me and what do I need from you and that’s the most important thing that we really worked on.

“You always feel like you have something to prove, but certainly this year in particular, I’m very fired up to go out there and win. Not one race, not two races, not even three – just like multiple race sand show that we are a contender each and every week just like I know that we are.

“You can always talk about the ones that got away last year, but that was last year. So what, now what? We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do to change the narrative of our team that we’re on the decline.”

Greg Engle