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Hamlin, who led the race for six laps, said on his podcast – Actions Detrimental with Denny Hamlin – that he had an big opportunity to win until the final pitstop cycle, when he pitted from a top-five place with 23 laps to go with Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team-mate Martin Truex Jr.
The plan was for them to rejoin in tandem, but Truex needed much less gas to get the end and exited the pits too far ahead of Hamlin to draft immediately. Meanwhile, their rivals pitted in greater numbers and gained so much time on their out-laps that the Toyota duo was dumped to the rear of the field.
Truex and Hamlin finished 15th and 17th respectively.
“This race is just becoming more and more unpredictable every single year,” said Hamlin. “It’s so hard to pass in these Next Gen cars on superspeedways, the racing was two-by-two, so you just can’t go to the back of the pack at any point and come back, especially towards the end of the race.
“I came out from the last pitstop in 18th and I basically told Chris [Gabehart, crew chief] ‘we’re ****ed’ – I had nowhere to go. [Before that] I thought I was in the position I needed to be, I was seventh and first non-Ford. So the last pitstop cycle happens and we just… I think we messed up. A handful of Fords pitted, literally five, and then me and Truex pitted by ourselves. I think we ****ed up.
“Truex had seven more laps of fuel than I did, so let’s say that’s a second and a half less than I need to pack my fuel cell full to get to the end. He came in behind me and we had to take a certain amount of fuel, let’s say it was five seconds of fuel.
“Truex only needed probably three seconds of fuel, so he comes off pit road two seconds ahead of me, and the time we lost not being bumper to bumper leaving the pit road, that is another two seconds of detriment – because we’re drafting as soon as we leave pit road. You can lose two seconds around that out-lap if you’re not bumper to bumper.
“Add that to the two seconds lost on pitlane, that took me from seventh or eighth to basically last. I was screwed at that point. That was a key, key moment.”
Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing, Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry, Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports, Ally Chevrolet Camaro, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JTG Daugherty Racing, Kroger/Cottonelle Chevrolet Camaro, Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx 50 Toyota Camry, Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Busch Light Ford Mustang
Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images
Hamlin said that shock race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. achieved the opposite progression in the final round of stops, leaving him well placed to take advantage of the double overtime finish to win his first Daytona 500.
“Ricky was 20th when the [final] green flag stops started, so not a good spot,” Hamlin explained. “But he executed really well, he moved himself up the Chevy line by getting into and off pit road well, and the Chevys ran longer, so they didn’t need as much fuel to the finish, and they pitted with the bulk of cars so they linked up quicker.
“Chevy won the strategy game, in my opinion.”