Listen to this article
During the Gen-6 era, Hamlin won three Daytona 500s (2016, 2019, 2020) and has finished outside the top-five only twice in the past nine races.
Earlier in his career, Hamlin’s results in NASCAR’s biggest race weren’t nearly as impressive. During the Gen-5 and C.O.T. era from 2006 to 2012, he posted just one result above 17th in the Daytona 500 — a fourth-place finish in 2012.
So what makes Hamlin so good at Daytona over the last decade? “I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls,” he said during Media Day on Wednesday. “Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven’t won as much at Talladega, but we’ve been pretty good. Here, there is just something about – whatever it is – the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are it seems like that are a little bit better.”
But the new car creates new challenges for all drivers, and what worked in 2021 may not translate to 2022’s race. “We have a new car now and it’s going to move around a little bit different and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don’t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”
While many would say that the new car levels the playing field at the Cup level, Hamlin thinks those who have been at the top will remain and a major shake-up should not be expected.
“Temper expectations on that,” said Hamlin. “The quote of level playing field is probably overused. Certainly, probably a tighter box from front to back but again it’s just teams find ways. If you look at single car runs yesterday, the same guys that have been on all of the poles have been the fastest. While technically you’re able to put the same parts off of his car on my car and my car on his car, what really has changed? Well, nothing really except maybe the motor is different and the body is different but they’re significantly faster. You’re still going to have the team’s resources to find a way to make the car faster than the teams that just bolt it together.”
Teams can’t afford to crash
Hamlin noted that what we see in practice and even the Duels on Thursday might not reflect Sunday’s 500 either. With car counts low for each team as they transition into the Next Gen era, and some teams even without backup cars, drivers have to be especially careful and avoid trouble during the week.
Because of this, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver called the January test the real practice session for this weekend.
“That was our practice ultimately and I think that we all kind of knew that going into the test and I was pushing Kurt (Busch) pretty heavily and Joey (Logano) and I were blocking pretty heavily and pushing each other which that is what we’re going to be doing in the 500,” he explained.
“I don’t know that you’ll see that really in practice here or even in the 150s. Simply because the way my team explained it to me is that if we crash here in the test, we have time to overcome it, but on the race week it will be very, very tough to overcome any damage. I think that was the moment where okay if we’re going to push the limits let’s do it here, do it now. So, that’s why we spent two days here being as aggressive as we were because my crew chief said to enjoy while you can because you’re not going to be doing it again until the 500.”
23XI Racing a playoff contender?
Hamlin is in a unique position. He is both driver one team and co-owner at another with 23XI Racing, which recently expanded into a two-car operation. In fact, the last superspeedway race was won by his organization with Bubba Wallace taking victory in the rain-shorted playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway. He is joined at 23XI Racing by former series champion Kurt Busch for the 2022 season.
Hamlin believes both of his drivers are capable of making the playoffs this year, calling it “possible.”
“I think a goal for us to have both cars in the Playoffs. I think Bubba (Wallace) isn’t far off from that. It’s one DNF away – when you look at the standings of who is a contender to beat. I remember last year we were talking with two races to go from the Playoffs – two or three races to go – and it was like ‘We’re 30 points behind. That’s not that much.’ It’s not that much. You can gain a couple spots a week and on average change a drivers finish from 20th to 18th and you’re there. It’s not that much and you really won’t see that much but yet you’ll see a big change in the standings. That’s just the way our sport works.
“I think in general the average finish of the field is going to go up this year. Maybe not for the guys in the back who ran in the back pretty much every week, but really, you’re top 10 I would say in average finish probably will go up at least a few points than where we’ve been in the past just because of mechanical failures, wrecks, all those things will be up dramatically this year. It will be important to finish races and finish to the best of your ability and not stretching for one point and then making a mistake and losing 20.”