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For Hamlin, The Battle Will Be Vs. Inner Demons

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 23 2014

Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs look to be 500 favorites – if there is such a thing. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

When Denny Hamlin won last year’s season-ending Sprint Cup race in South Florida, it seemed at the time to be just a warm ending to a cold season. Now it appears that last November’s victory could have been the start of something big.

Hamlin, whose victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway at the end of 2013 was his only victory last year, has been perfect in Speedweeks races this month. He won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race and then his Budweiser Duel qualifier.

Those looking for a favorite to win Sunday afternoon’s Daytona 500 (1:15-is on Fox), 33-year-old Denny Hamlin appears to be a good place to start the search. And if not Hamlin, then perhaps his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth, who won the other 150-mile qualifier on Thursday and who is also a two-time 500-winner and its its defending champion.

“If you’re going to pick a favorite, I would consider them the favorites,” four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. “They won both races (Thursday). They won the Unlimited. I don’t know if that means anything, but I would say that they’re very quick and very capable of winning this race.”

Who would have thought Gordon or anybody else would have been saying that four months ago. For JGR in general, 2013 was a disappointment. For Hamlin particularly, 2013 was stinker.

A back injury suffered at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. in the spring forced him out of his No. 11 Toyota. He had to sit out four full races and watch from his pit box. He then started at Talladega but got out of the car at the first pit stop.

The injured vertebrae were rehabbed back into shape and Hamlin had hopes of somehow making up for the

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

five races of zero points. He couldn’t, of course. And that hurt on a different level.

“I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year,” Hamlin, who had won five times in 2012 and finished in the top 10 in points for five consecutive seasons, said. “It’s something no driver wants to have to go through, but I think it was kind of a game-changer in my outlook and my attitude toward being a Sprint Cup driver. Obviously, is made me appreciate in my own mind what I get to do every week.”

Things went well for a couple of races after Talladega last spring. But during the summer, he went 18 straight races without a top-10 finish.  But in the final four races, Hamlin and his JGR team pulled themselves together and posted top-7 finishes three times.

The biggie was the Homestead victory.

“First of all,” team owner Joe Gibbs said, “last year was so, so hard on us. I got to tell you, Homestead was a huge deal for us. That was a big win. I think it gave everybody their confidence going into the off-season.”

That certainly has appeared to be true during Speedweeks.

After winning his Duel, Hamlin was asked about his chances in the 500.

“Once that snowball starts to roll it’s hard to stop it and right now we’re just on a heck of a run,” he said.

Both Hamlin and Kenseth and Gibbs know what can happen to snowballs in Central Florida in February. The

Denny Hamlin in back on his feet and in his seat. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

plan to avoid a meltdown is to stay cool, they said in harmony.

“For my part,” Hamlin said, “I think the biggest challenge we’ll have for myself is keeping the reins back only for 400 miles, 450 miles. It’s going to be a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you’re still on top and still the best right on lap 1.

“I think that will be my challenge within myself, is keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.

“It’s going to be battling those inner demons of wanting to go out there, lead laps, putting yourself in a safe position, but also being conservative and making sure you’re there at the end of the day.”

Kenseth’s emotions have been very Kensethian in the wake of the Duels.

“A lot of strong cars out there,” the 2013 500 winner said, “so there’s a lot of guys that didn’t run so good on speedways last year that were really, really strong today. I think it’s going to be a good race coming up next and a great race on Sunday.”

Gibbs, whose teams have won the 500 just once – in 1993 with Dale Jarrett driving – is in a semi-permanent state of reined-in emotions.

“For me,” Gibbs, a three-time winner of the Daytona 500 of pro football – the Super Bowl – said, “I’m always concerned in pro sports that anything can happen. I don’t think I ever go into something where I feel like, Hey, we got this thing. That’s just not the way I personally ever look at it. So many things got to go your way.

“I think drivers and crew chiefs, they’re more optimistic than I am because, I don’t know, I’m always nervous about it. But, you know, you make preparation and go for it.”

And if you get it, Coach?

“I know this: you win one of these,” Gibbs said, “these 500s, it’s one of the greatest experiences. That night (after the 1993 win at DIS) we got lost, we didn’t know what to do, where Victory Lane was. Norm Miller was with us. We wound up at the Steak and Shake. There were about 15 people in there hammered, we showed up with the trophy, out in the parking lot taking pictures with our family. We had a ball then.”

Sounds like his kind of night, Hamlin said, interrupting a classic Gibbs story.

“I want to do this Sunday night,” Gibbs continued. “We’ll go down to Steak and Shake and have a party.”

To many race observers, looks like the Steak and Shake on Speedway Boulevard will be the place to be on Sunday night.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

The starting lineup for the 2014 Daytona 500:

Pos/Car No./ Driver/ Team

1 / 3 / Austin Dillon #/ DOW Chevrolet

2 / 78 / Martin Truex. Jr./Furniture Row Chevrolet

3 / 20 / Matt Kenseth Dollar General Toyota

4 / 11 / Denny Hamlin FedEx Express Toyota

5 / 5 / Kasey Kahne Farmers Insurance Chevrolet

6 / 24 / Jeff Gordon Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet

7 / 9 / Marcos Ambrose Stanley Ford

8 / 41 / Kurt Busch Haas Automation Chevrolet

9/ 88 / Dale Earnhardt Jr. National Guard Chevrolet

10 / 27 / Paul Menard Peak/Menards Chevrolet

11 / 98 / Josh Wise Curb Records Ford

12/ 33 / Brian Scott Whitetail Chevrolet

13 / 43 / Aric Almirola Smithfield Ford

14 / 21 / Trevor Bayne (i) Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford

15 / 47 / AJ Allmendinger Kroger/USO Chevrolet

16 / 42 / Kyle Larson # Target Chevrolet

17 / 38 / David Gilliland Love’s Travel Stops Ford

18 / 40 / Landon Cassill (i) Hillman Racing Chevrolet

19 / 31 / Ryan Newman Caterpillar Chevrolet

20 / 15 / Clint Bowyer 5-hour Energy Toyota

21 / 14 / Tony Stewart Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet

22 / 1 / Jamie McMurray McDonald’s Chevrolet

23 / 26 / Cole Whitt # Speed Stick Gear Toyota

24 / 32 / Terry Labonte C&J Energy Services Ford

25 / 16 / Greg Biffle 3M Ford

26 /52 / Bobby Labonte Phoenix Construction Chevrolet

27 / 10 / Danica Patrick GoDaddy Chevrolet

28 / 13 / Casey Mears GEICO Chevrolet

29 / 23 / Alex Bowman # Dr. Pepper Toyota

30 / 99 / Carl Edwards Fastenal Ford

31 / 55 / Brian Vickers Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota

32 /48 / Jimmie Johnson Lowe’s Chevrolet

33 / 2 / Brad Keselowski Miller Lite Ford

34 / 17 / Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Nationwide Insurance Ford

35 / 22 / Joey Logano Shell Pennzoil Ford

36 / 7 / Michael Annett # Pilot/Flying J Travel Centers Chevrolet

37 /18 / Kyle Busch M&M’s Toyota

38 / 4 / Kevin Harvick Budweiser Chevrolet

39 / 36 / Reed Sorenson Golden Corral Chevrolet

40 / 51 / Justin Allgaier # Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet

41 / 30 / Parker Kligerman # Swan Energy Toyota

42 / 66 / Michael Waltrip BlueDEF/AAA Toyota

43 / 34 / David Ragan CSX – Play It Safe Ford

# indicates rookie

Failed to qualify: No. 35 Eric McClure, No. 83 Ryan Truex, No. 87 Joe Nemechek, No. 93 Morgan Shepherd, No. 95 Michael McDowell

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 23 2014
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