Denny Hamlin contemplates a significant milestone—a fourth DAYTONA 500 win

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—As Denny Hamlin sat at the dais in the Daytona International Speedway media center, a photo recalling the history he hopes to achieve hung on the wall to his immediate left.

It was a Victory Lane shot of NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough, holding the Harley J. Earl Award the earned by winning the 1977 DAYTONA 500.

Yarborough, who died in December at age 84, won the Great American Race four times, second only to the seven victories achieved by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Richard Petty.

Hamlin, one of four drivers to have won back-to-back DAYTONA 500s—the others being Yarborough, Petty and Sterling Marlin—will make his fourth attempt to match Yarborough‘s win total in Sunday‘s race (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The most significant hole in Hamlin‘s all-but-certain Hall-of-Fame resume is the lack of a series championship, but the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota would be loath to pick between a fourth DAYTONA 500 and a title.

“By the outside views, this is the pinnacle of our sport,” Hamlin said on Wednesday during DAYTONA 500 media day. “The championship is decided in one race, just like this is decided in one race. I‘m not really sure. It just depends on whose perspective it might be. But certainly, with the championship getting a smaller and smaller sample size, I view them very similarly.”

To win a fourth 500, Hamlin believes he‘ll have to approach the race in a more self-centered way, rather than relying on the help of teammates or fellow Toyota drivers.

“I think it‘s in my best interest in getting back to basics, and that’s doing what I feel is best to win the race for myself,” Hamlin explained. “While having teammates is great, and they are certainly assets to use in certain situations to win races, I think sometimes it’s those who are the most selfish, that make moves for themselves, are those who win the race.

“Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) had no teammates last year. He won the race. We’ve certainly had our fair share of moments when we‘ve had to pick between a move with a teammate made versus a move someone else made, and I deemed the other person made the right move…

“Still, you want to help your teammates as much as you can, as you‘ll need those allies throughout the race and certainly during it. But I feel I need to personally go back to the style I had a few years ago, and we‘ll see what the results say.”

Kyle Busch feels he may be destined to fill the last hole in his resume

Before his breakthrough victory in the 1998 DAYTONA, the late Dale Earnhardt had won everything else there was to win at Daytona International Speedway.

Finally, in his 20th attempt, Earnhardt broke the jinx that had haunted him throughout his career and won the Great American Race.

Likewise, Kyle Busch has been to Victory Lane at Daytona on numerous occasions—just not in the race he covets most. He has won the Clash twice, triumphed three times in the Duels and claimed one trophy in the summer race at the World Center of Racing.

Busch will make his 19th DAYTONA 500 start on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It would have been his 20th, but for a 2015 injury—suffered in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race a day before the 500–that sidelined him for the first 11 events of the season.

So, if not precisely comparable, Busch is in a position like the one Earnhardt faced in 1998.

“Trust me, I’m well aware,” Busch said. “Thank you very much. I hope we can talk about some of the same storylines on Sunday. That would be nice.”

Last year‘s running of the 500 still sticks in Busch‘s craw. He led the race under caution at Lap 200 (500 miles) but was collected in a wreck during overtime. Taking the checkered flag under green has continued to elude him.

“I have not done that yet, although I won the Daytona 500 last year under the yellow flag, not under the checkered flag,” Busch quipped. “Those damn technicalities keep coming up and getting me.”

A Las Vegas native, Busch has sponsorship support from the BetMGM website. Asked whether he was a good bet for Sunday‘s race, Busch replied in the affirmative.

“I would,” he said. “Well, from what I’ve heard of a lot of other people around our industry this past week, there’s a lot of people that have good feelings on us this week. Maybe that’s a good omen.”

With outstanding Daytona record, Bubba Wallace needs just slight improvement to win

It‘s hard to argue with Bubba Wallace‘s past performance at Daytona International Speedway.

In 13 starts at the 2.5-mile track, Wallace has posted an admirable average finish of 12.9 and has completed 2,303 of a possible 2,346 laps (98.2 percent). He has led 28 laps and has been in the front of the field more often than not.

In his best two DAYTONA 500 races, Wallace finished second to Austin Dillon by 0.260 seconds in 2018 and second to Austin Cindric by 0.036 seconds in 2022.

Despite the enviable statistics, Wallace isn‘t satisfied with his DAYTONA 500 results.

“A little inconsistent, but we always find our way to the front and showing good pace on speedways,” he said on Wednesday. “We’re still a few moves away from getting that first Daytona 500 win, but I feel the most prepared I‘ve ever been, but you never know.

“You could be out leading and get turned. That‘s what happened to me last year. You never know when another person in the field is going to make the wrong move, so you have to be aware.”

In last year‘s race, for example, Wallace was in good position in the closing laps before disaster struck.

“I came across the line fifth or sixth taking the white flag,” he said. “(Kyle) Larson was stuck in the middle, and I could‘ve went down to him, but the 10 (Aric Almirola) turned the 67 (Travis Pastrana) right into Larson, which turned me.

“Should‘ve, could‘ve, would‘ve. It‘s so hard until it‘s too late.”

New to Stewart-Haas Racing, Noah Gragson is grateful for a second chance

After steady progress toward the upper echelons of stock car racing, Noah Gragson made a critical mistake that altered the trajectory of his career.

Armed now with a new perspective, Gragson hopes to restart his truncated stint in the NASCAR Cup Series with a new team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

Gragson was suspended last August for “liking” a racially insensitive social media post relating to the death of George Floyd. He resigned as driver of the No. 42 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet 21 races into the NASCAR Cup Series season.

Gragson earned reinstatement in September and subsequently landed a ride in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Ford, replacing Aric Almirola. He‘s grateful for the opportunity to prove himself.

“Yeah, it‘s definitely a reboot,” said Gragson, who won eight NASCAR Xfinity Series races with JR Motorsports in 2022 and finished second in the final standings before moving up to the Cup Series with Legacy. “It‘s incredible to get an opportunity like this.

“At the same time, there‘s going to be challenges along the way. There‘s going to be adversity. There‘s going to be good runs and bad runs, but it‘s how you react to it and how you keep on moving forward each and every race. It‘s easy when you‘re winning, and I‘ve kind of learned that over the past couple of years.

“When we were in the Xfinity Series and literally could do no wrong, it might have been the best thing for me, but the worst thing of winning all those races because, I kind of lost my grounding in the sense of ‘Hey, I‘ve got to keep on working at this.‘ It‘s not always going to come as easy as it did in my final year in Xfinity.”

The reality of that statement hit home last year even before the suspension. Gragson failed to score a top 10 and suffered DNFs in six of the 21 races.

“It was somewhat of a rude awakening in 2023,” he acknowledged. “Obviously, we didn‘t unload with race-winning speed, ever, so that was a big challenge. (I‘ve) done a lot of self-reflecting and soul searching over the past handful of months and trying to become the best leader possible.

“I think that‘s what in 20 years, when I look back, I feel like, man, if I was the best leader for my team and the best piece of the puzzle for my team and did the best job, I‘ll be satisfied with myself.”

— NASCAR Newswire —

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