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Denny Hamlin writes tale of two heroes at Daytona

By
Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange
Denny Hamlin celebrates winning the closest Daytona 500 ever at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona, Florida. Photo by Mike Gentry/UPI
Denny Hamlin celebrates winning the closest Daytona 500 ever at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona, Florida. Photo by Mike Gentry/UPI | License Photo

One storybook finisher won and another storybook finisher lost the Daytona 500 by half a foot.

Denny Hamlin, the veteran wheelman who has displayed consummate skills for 10 previous seasons, was finally first to the checkered flag in NASCAR's biggest major. Martin Truex Jr., another ten-year veteran, will have to continue in his role as a contender to win big one day soon, but not this time.

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Hamlin, who is in a contract season at Joe Gibbs Racing and is coming off surgery to repair the ligament in his right knee, emerged from the cacophony of roaring engines and fans by making the big move at the right time. The seas parted for fellow Toyota driver Truex Jr., too, until the final 20 yards when Hamlin outsmarted him in the black art of side drafting.

It was Hamlin who got lucky with his comeback after messing up his tires on his final pit stop, the same guy who wrote and drew pictures about winning the Daytona 500 in grade school and whose parents once took a second mortgage to finance his career.

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Truex Jr., who imagined a NASCAR career by venturing to the track with his racing father, might have won this one for his girlfriend Sherry Pollex, a recent winner in her battle with cancer. But after leader Matt Kenseth's move to block Hamlin's last-lap charge put Truex Jr. in the lead, the photo finish was less than kind to the nice guy driver who has virtually no enemies in the garage.

Joe Gibbs, who now has two Harley Earl trophies to go with three from the Super Bowl, was there to congratulate Hamlin, a winner at Daytona in car number 11 on his 11th try. All the Toyota drivers - including Truex Jr. -- wanted to be the guy to win one for the coach and his son J.D. Gibbs.

The former team president who is now the co-chairman for the Gibbs team, J.D. Gibbs saw his team win on his birthday, a grand moment for the relatively young and successful racing executive who continues to suffer from a yet-to-be fully diagnosed brain condition.

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Given the fact Hamlin delivered Toyota's first Daytona 500 victory in the race's closest finish and that it came in the first race at the new stadium-style Daytona International Speedway, the storybook finishes don't get much better unless, of course, you're the guy who came up six inches short after 500 miles.

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"It's the pinnacle of my career, for sure," said Hamlin. "I haven't got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself. It's just the circumstances. J.D. Gibbs, who found me about 12, 13 years ago, it's his birthday today. He's been so pivotal to myself and my team and supporting me for the past 11 years."

Hamlin had a flash forward of sorts. He was seven years old when he drew a picture of winning at Daytona. "I totally forgot about it, but (my mother) showed me that picture this week. The things I talked about, being J.D.'s birthday, our 11th try, everything just came together," he said. "You couldn't have written a better ending to our week."

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In Gibbs' case, it's not quite possible to have a perfect ending. If you own four cars in the race, only one can win. He also had to console Kenseth, who got passed by Hamlin's aggressive dive on the high banks in Turn 3. Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing team have a technical alliance with Gibbs, but don't really count as one of his cars.

"It's extremely hard," said Gibbs. "You wind up with Denny, you're so happy. I looked up and actually where I was looking to the broadcast, the cars were coming at me, I thought we lost. I looked up, saw we won. So I went through that emotion. Then you're thinking about Matt, everything that happened to him."

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The race was won on a pit stop audible by rookie Crew Chief Mike Wheeler - who also had a storybook finish. Wheeler won the Daytona 500 in his first try after Gibbs had been looking for his second trophy in NASCAR's crown jewel since 1993. When Hamlin smoked his tires on his entrance to the pit road on his final stop, Wheeler called a four-tire change instead of two. Hamlin then had to come from three rows behind the leader to win on the final lap.

"I got cocky," said Hamlin, who led 95 laps in part because of his crew's pit work. "Every time we've ever had a green flag pit stop or caution, I beat everyone off pit road. I'm sitting here like, 'I'm the pit road master,'" said Hamlin. "Then I come in there and blow it and screw my tires up on the last stop that actually counts."

It was not a Speed Weeks of great last laps for Truex Jr. Through no fault of his own, he lost a car when he was collected by a crash on the last lap of the Sprint Unlimited and again on the last lap of his 150-mile qualifying race. He started a third car at the rear of the field only to come up excruciatingly short.

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"Wish we could have won, obviously," he said. "Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, I suppose, the rest of my life. I remember when it happened to Mark Martin, poor guy, been so close here so many times. They still show the highlight. The picture of that race is in the tunnel when you come in in Turn 1. I have a feeling I'm going to have to see that same thing for a long time. It hurts a little bit, but a lot to be proud of, for sure."

The big race gremlin has been chased away by Hamlin. "I won six races here, but never actually a points-paying race," he said. "Up until the All-Star win last year (in Charlotte), I mean, I've won my fair share of races in the time I've been doing this, but I hadn't won any big races. I won the Southern 500. That was the biggest win of my career as far as stature is concerned. I hadn't won a championship. I hadn't won the 500. I hadn't won the Brickyard 400 or the Coke 600.

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"I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as my career is concerned," he continued, "but I'm in the darkness. I can't see back and I can't see forward. I feel like I'm right in the middle. I want to get some of these accomplishments done because ultimately you're defined by the big moments. That's why this one is so big for us, and me in particular, is that you don't like to be the guy that wins races but not the big ones, and you don't win a championship."

Of course, Hamlin, who has 27 Sprint Cup wins, is likely locked into this year's Chase already and the championship is next on his career goals list.

"I've been so close over my career, yeah, I just feel like I've knocked on the door and knocked on the door. Eventually you got to just kick the thing in. So this is a good start to doing that."

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