By Dustin Albino

Whenever the NASCAR season gets underway, you know Denny Hamlin is going to be a factor. After all, entering 2021, he’d won three of the past five Daytona 500s, including two straight.

Hamlin’s dominance in the Great American Race continued on Sunday evening — and Monday Morning! — sweeping both stages, leading a race-high 98 laps. Despite all of his previous success at the World Center of Racing, that’s a new career-high for the Virginia native at Daytona.

After the race resumed following a 16-car pileup on lap 14, plus a nearly six-hour red flag, Hamlin paced the field, rim-riding around the top, leading a 200 mph freight train. Lap after lap after lap, no one dared to pull out, until stage points came in sight.

That’s OK for Hamlin, he’ll take the added stats (now sits fourth on the all-time laps led list in Daytona 500 history).

But even though Hamlin earned two playoff points on the evening, and was dominating the final stage, his race went awry when pitting with his Toyota brethren on lap 172. Straight up, the Joe Gibbs Racing team didn’t have strength in numbers; pitting with teammates Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and affiliate Bubba Wallace.

Sure, the Toyotas came onto pit road together, but not being able to create a formation of the pits was what hindered Hamlin’s chances the most.

“We were too far out front,” Hamlin said post race. “We got on-and-off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack.

“We didn‘t execute too good on pit road. We came out in front of everybody, and didn‘t have any help to get up to speed. They all blew by us because they were single file, so it just took away the power that I got and that‘s getting through traffic.”

Joey Logano was the first driver to reach and pass Hamlin on his up to speed lap — the Fords were in sync. Instead of throwing an evasive block on the field, the No. 11 car dropped to the end of the lead draft with 27 laps remaining. He sat 12th.

Then his own driver, Wallace, reported a vibration. That led the No. 23 to pit road, where he would evidently go a lap off the pace. When up to speed, Wallace dropped in at the end of the pack, planning to draft with Hamlin. Soon after, Bell also pitted a second time, going one lap off the pace. The No. 20 car, too, joined Hamlin at the end of the line.

But in an unusual Daytona 500 that remained single file, no driver jumped out of line. That was a surprise for Hamlin, as he thought someone surely would shoot some gaps prior to the white flag.

“I figured the Chevys would make a move from two [laps] or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth,” Hamlin said. “I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn‘t really do anything. I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I‘m in the energy — in the area where I can make something happen.

“Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that execute too good. […] Our fate was sealed once we got shuffled and we got the best finish we possibly could.”

Hamlin’s streak of consecutive wins in the 500 is now over. But the No. 11 car still rounded out the top five, scoring his fourth consecutive top-five finish in the Great American Race.

Those results aren’t too shabby for a once Virginia short-track racer. But there’s still disappointment not to win in the sport’s biggest race.

“I’m certainly disappointed, simply because I thought we had a dominant car, won the stages and led a lot of laps,” Hamlin said. “I hate being helpless. I hate not being able to do anything, not being able to use the skillset that I have to make moves. If I could ever get cars moving around a little bit, I can shuffle and get my way to the front.”

It’s not all bad for Hamlin, though. After the first race of the 2021 season he sits second in points (only behind Austin Dillon, who scored 10 additional points via his Duel win on Thursday). His next shot at a fourth Daytona 500 will just be on hold for 365 days.

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