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Kelly Crandall, PopularSpeed.com

Daytona 500 Win Gives Hamlin Big Race Recognition

Denny Hamlin has put in 10 years at the Sprint Cup level, but before Sunday’s victory in the Daytona 500 he questioned what mark he’s made.

“You look around and it’s like well, you haven’t the Daytona 500; you haven’t won a championship; you haven’t won the Brickyard 400,” Hamlin said. “It’s like, what have I really done?”

If given the chance to walk in Hamlin’s shoes, there are plenty of drivers who would gladly take his career. But at 35 years old, Hamlin understands that sometimes a driver’s worth is judged by their accomplishments in NASCAR’s major events. And although he’s never lacked in confidence, finally capturing the biggest race of the year adds another layer to him.

“Essentially I won six races (at Daytona), but never actually a points-paying race. Up until the All-Star win last year, I’ve won my fair share of races in the time I’ve been doing this, but I hadn’t won any big races,” Hamlin said. “I won the Southern 500. That was the biggest win of my career as far as stature.”

Sunday was the 27th win of Hamlin’s career and his second points-paying win on a superspeedway.

Growing up just outside of Richmond, Virginia, Hamlin made a name for himself by dominating local shorts competing in late models. When he made it to the Sprint Cup Series, it wasn’t surprising he took to tracks like Martinsville, Bristol, and Richmond. Pocono Raceway was one he also picked up on quickly.

In fact, many of Hamlin’s early wins came on a similar style of track. It wasn’t until late 2009 and 2010 he broke through at the high-speed facilities like Homestead-Miami, Texas Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. His Southern 500 win at Darlington Raceway came in 2010.

Those types of races helped elevate Hamlin into an elite group of drivers who could win anywhere, at any time. Except, while winning was great, they always seemed to lack a special something. The Daytona 500 doesn’t, and Hamlin admitted he’s not sure which feeling – relief at its importance or the thrill of a big win – outweighs the other.

“I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel as far as my career is concerned, but I’m in the darkness. I can’t see back, and I can’t see forward,” he said. “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. You don’t like to be the guy that wins races, but not big ones, and you don’t win a championship.”
He’s been on each end of the spectrum there, too. Having qualified for all but one Chase appearance, Hamlin has had post-seasons where he’s simply contended, been knocked out early, and lost a championship he had his fingers on with one race to go.

Hamlin now looks at that bucket list item the way he once did about Daytona. Knowing that harder he keeps trying, and the closer he keeps getting will eventually lead to the payoff.

“The championship is the next on the list for us,” he said. “I’ve been so close over my career 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.”