For a moment, it appeared that Denny Hamlin was on his way in etching a new historical moment in NASCAR by becoming the first competitor to win the Daytona 500 for three consecutive seasons.
Then, everything evaporated with approximately 30 laps remaining.
During a cycle of green flag stops, Hamlin pitted along with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and his driver from 23XI Racing Bubba Wallace. By then, the Ford and Chevrolet competitors had completed their final services under green a few laps earlier. By the time Hamlin returned on the track, he was unable to remain with Busch and Wallace in the draft and in a pack formation, though he had a huge advantage.
With less speed than the oncoming pack, Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry was quickly overtaken from the lead by a bevy of competitors led by Joey Logano. Without the draft needed to remain at the front, he fell back to 12th place with approximately 25 laps remaining.
“We were too far out front,” Hamlin said on FOX. “We just got on and off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack. I figured the Chevys would make a move with two or three [laps] to go, because they’re not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth.”
Though he remained within the lead pack in the final laps, even working his way up to ninth place with 10 laps remaining, Hamlin was unable to produce a run with other competitors to work his way back to the front and challenge for the win. By the time the checkered flag flew, which the race finished under caution following a vicious accident on the final lap, the veteran could only work his way as high as fifth place, four spots behind race winner Michael McDowell.
“I was able to gain some positions there,” Hamlin added. “I was 12th, everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. Once I got to eighth, I was like, ‘OK, as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy area where I can make something happen.’ All we could get to was a top five.”
The fifth-place result marked Hamlin’s eighth top-five career finish in the Daytona 500 as he was also the highest-finishing Toyota competitor in the event. The result, however, produced a disappointing outcome to his dominating run under the lights and dark skies, where he won both stages, led a race-high 98 of the 200-scheduled laps and had a competitive car running towards the front since the start.
In addition to pursuing his record third consecutive Daytona 500 title, Hamlin was also aiming to join NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough as a four-time 500 champion and deliver the fifth 500 title for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“Dominant car,” Hamlin noted. “Just a dominant car. It’s one of those things where you execute too good and just got freight-trained at the end.”
With a new season of NASCAR competition underway, Hamlin will return for the next event on the schedule, which is at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course on Sunday, February 21. The event will occur at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.