Denny Hamlin, among Daytona 500 favorites, targeting history in Florida

NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Winning the Daytona 500 is one of the most challenging feats in motorsports.

Winning the race in consecutive years? Borderline impossible.

Yet Denny Hamlin seems as good of a candidate to accomplish the feat as any.

Only thrice in the 58-year history of ‘The Great American Race’ has someone pulled into victory lane at the World Center of Speed for back-to-back Daytona 500 victories.

Richard Petty was the first to do it, claiming the 500-mile event in both 1973 and ’74. The King would go on to win the spectacle seven times in his historic NASCAR career.

Cale Yarborough also managed the feat in 1983 and ’84, two of four victories the legend had in the 500.

The most recent driver to accomplish the feat is Sterling Marlin, who incredibly earned his first two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (then Winston Cup) victories on the grandest stage of them all.

Marlin would go on to win 10 races in his career, though he’s known as much for wins and titles lost — both the 2002 Daytona 500, where he was penalized for attempting to repair his car under red-flag conditions, and the season, wherein a fractured vertebrae sustained in a crash at Kansas Speedway kept the veteran from contending for the championship.

With 29-career victories and under his belt, Hamlin sits somewhere between those three classic shoes in the NASCAR history books. However, this Sunday he’ll have the rare opportunity to join them both as the victor in consecutive Daytona 500s.

Given the history of the race, Hamlin knows the feat won’t be easy to accomplish.

““The odds are stacked against you,” Hamlin said. “I mean, if this was Martinsville, I’d say the odds were really good, or Richmond, or somewhere like that. But Daytona, we all know that the entire field could win the race.

“We’ve seen very unexpected winners in the past. It’s just because, you know, there’s a lot of attrition, a lot of things that can happen. There’s just more drivers that can win this week than what could in, say, Atlanta next week. So that makes it very, very hard to repeat. That’s why you’ve seen just a few drivers do it.”

Still, Hamlin still remains confident in his chances to make it to victory lane.

With the same rules package on the race cars as the one seen last year, Hamlin and his Toyota teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) and Furniture Row Racing should find themselves with an opportunity to work together in the same fashion that they did in a dominant 2016 performance.

The JGR contingent already managed such a feat in the year-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition race, dominating the closing stages of the race before a spirited effort from Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano interfered with their plans.

Hamlin ultimately lost that battle, crashing after contact with Keselowski on the last lap and allowing Logano to slip by for the victory. However, with the Daytona 500 come more numbers for the two Toyota teams (six drivers), and therefore a greater opportunity to control the race if their strategy excels.

From there the race would likely be decided amongst the team, and Hamlin’s restrictor-plate chops trump every Toyota driver save perhaps for Matt Kenseth, who has two Daytona 500 victories.

“I feel confident in the technique,” Hamlin said. “I feel confident in the work that I’ve put in off the racetrack to become good at these type of racetracks. It’s showing up with results every time I hit the racetrack, especially this racetrack.

“I think there’s something about this track being more narrow than Talladega that makes me more successful at this track. I’m not sure what it is, but I think there’s something to it where the narrower groove, the tighter pack of air, that makes me better here.”

Hamlin will get a chance to put his confidence to the test in Thursday’s scheduled Can-Am Duels qualifying races. The Virginian rolls off third in the second duel.

The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. ET.

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