A win in the Daytona 500 can turn great drivers into legendary drivers, joining an elite group in motorsport that transcends NASCAR itself.
Although there have been plenty of upsets over the years- Ward Burton, Pete Hamilton, and Trevor Bayne to name a few- the list of Daytona 500 winners are generally the best of the sport. Of drivers with 40 or more Cup Series wins in their careers, only six of the 17 drivers who accomplished this feat lack a Harley J. Earle Trophy on their mantle piece.
The 2016 Daytona 500 will be better remembered as the 2016 Toyota 500. Toyota dominated the event, leading all but 44 of the 200 lap race between the five Camrys fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing.
At the end of the day, however, only one Toyota could end up in victory lane, and it was Denny Hamlin after beating Martin Truex Jr. to the finish line. The difference between the two cars might as well have been the period at the end of this sentence. Hamlin’s 95 laps led is the most for a driver in the 500 since Kurt Busch led the same number of laps in 2007.
It's real now pic.twitter.com/DVzFL5WKkk
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) February 22, 2016
The 500 was a good start to a good year for Hamlin. He set career highs in top 10s with 22, average finish at 11.8, and average start at an incredible 6.3. That amazing average start stat is due to Hamlin only missing the final round of qualifying once in the entire season, the fall Texas race where Hamlin started a season low 17th.
That Texas race was also one of only three races where Hamlin started outside of the top ten. Qualifying well is a great start to any race weekend, for both the driver- now there’s less traffic between themselves and the leader- and the pit crew. Think: every single weekend, the No. 11 pit crew, which is already one of the top pit crews in NASCAR, had their pick of some of the best pit stalls at every track. That’s a huge advantage for any team.
‘Hard As Nails’ Hamlin continued cementing his reputation as one of the tougher drivers in the series, waking up the day of Watkins Glen in August with back spasms but still recorded his first ever road course victory after taking the lead on a restart with ten laps to go. This followed up a very close second at Sonoma earlier in the summer, turning the Virginia dirt track driver into one of the series’ road course aces. Hamlin considers both Martinsville and Richmond as hometown racetracks, and although he could only manage a third at Martinsville this year, Hamlin won the fall race at Richmond.
So, why did Hamlin not make the championship four at Homestead this year? Two very simple problems, one obvious and one not so obvious.
The first were speeding penalties. A good pit stall and a good pit crew cannot overcome costly speeding penalties. Hamlin had nine on the year, pushing the team from competing in races where they may have competed for the win. One of the more costly ones came in a last season race at Martinsville. Hamlin had to restart in the back after being too fast exiting his stall, putting the No. 11 on the tail end of the subsequent restart. Although Hamlin recovered to finish third, one has to wonder how the race could have unfolded if the team wasn’t put into such a hole early on. Sometimes, Hamlin was just his own worst enemy.
The other problem Hamlin had this season was a simple lack of raw “firepower”. Hamlin had a good amount of top fives, 12 in all, but that number was dwarfed by Team Penske (both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski had 16), Kyle Busch (17), and Kevin Harvick (17). Those same drivers had a better than or equal amount of top 10s in 2016 than Hamlin. Hamlin just wasn’t as great as Team Penske or Kevin Harvick or even teammate Kyle Busch.
In some ways, Denny Hamlin’s 2016 was almost the complete opposite of Jimmie Johnson’s 2016. Hamlin won Daytona but maintained consistency throughout the regular season and had two late regular season wins at Watkins Glen and Richmond. Meanwhile, Johnson locked in a Chase berth with two early season wins and struggled in the late spring and summer. But Johnson made it through the first round of the Chase thanks to consistency before winning race one of the last two rounds of the Chase before winning it all at Homestead.
Hamlin had a very consistent Chase, only having one finish outside of the top fifteen. But Hamlin didn’t win and only had three top 5s in nine races before being knocked out of the Chase the race before Homestead. Consistency will always be a great virtue, but this championship system rewards winning. In the round of eight, Hamlin finished third, ninth, and seventh. Good, but not great enough to make it to Homestead with a chance.
And that’s basically the story of Denny Hamlin’s 2016. Good, but just not great enough to compare to Harvick or Busch or Logano. This team has a strong base, having the same driver, sponsor, and owner since 2006, only being out tenured by Johnson’s No. 48 team. Hamlin seems to have found something with Mike Wheeler that he just didn’t seem to have with Dave Rogers or Darian Grubb. Between Wheeler’s second season on top the pit box and the 36-year-old Hamlin still in his prime as a driver, this team should continue to build on that base in 2017 and go not just from good to great, but from great to legendary.