Winning the Daytona 500 is a life-changing event. It is a victory that attaches to a driver for life the title of Daytona 500 champion.
Not every driver gets to experience the thrill of winning “The Great American Race.” Winning it multiple times is just as rare, and rarer still is doing it in consecutive years.
Four drivers have won the Daytona 500 in back-to-back years. But no driver has won three consecutive Daytona 500s.
Denny Hamlin has the chance to become the first this afternoon (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX). Hamlin laid claim to the 2019 and ’20 events.
“This is a big opportunity for us and my team and myself personally; I never would have imagined that we’d be in this position by any means, especially five years ago when we didn’t have any,” said Hamlin. “I always think, in these situations and anytime you get asked, about all the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn’t make the right decision at the end to finish it off.
“It would be by far the biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything.”
Hamlin is the favorite to win the race at 8-1,. His crew chief, Chris Gabehart, is undefeated in the Daytona 500 after taking the reins of Hamlin’s team in 2019.
Brad Keselowski has never won the Daytona 500 and knows how hard it is to get to the finish. When asked if it is Hamlin versus the field this year or if Hamlin has all the pressure, Keselowski laughed that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver should be going to Las Vegas.
“Just to be running at the end is pretty impressive in two straight races,” Keselowski said. “The odds — you have about a 25 percent chance of just being alive at the finish of the race, so if you multiple 25 by 25, what’s the math on that one really quick? Is it six? You have a six percent chance of being running at two consecutive Daytona races, let alone winning those races. So, that would be a heck of a turn on any kind of card table, but he’s been able to pull it off.
“Much credit to him. He’s a good racer. Surviving is the most important thing, and then once you survive, you have to capitalize, and the fact that he’s been able to survive is really pretty amazing.”
Jamie McMurray knows a little bit about having a superspeedway streak. In the fall of 2009, McMurray won at Talladega. He then won the next superspeedway race, which was the 2010 Daytona 500. McMurray followed by that finishing second in the spring 2010 Talladega race a few months later.
“And then I wasn’t able to finish a superspeedway for two years, I feel like,” said McMurray. “It’s incredible what Denny’s been able to do, but also to finish just that many superspeedway races is an impressive feat as well.
“So I don’t know that he has a target on his back. I think if anything, you just have to look at some point — you make your own luck but at some point, your luck is going to run out.”
Hamlin was the only driver to finish in the top five in all four superspeedway races last year. Two of those were wins. And he has three Daytona 500 wins on his resume (2016, ’19, ’20), but having the chance to win three straight is something that brings him a lot of pride.
“I think it’s harder than it ever has been,” he said. “Go back and watch races from 2004, 2005, like there were just five or six superior cars that could pull away from the pack or they just were better. Cars were strung out more, the wrecks weren’t… you didn’t have as much attrition as what you have now. It’s harder. It is truly, in my mind, harder to win now because the field is closer.
“The chances of you getting in wrecks are higher, and everyone’s car is so close. It’s very, very difficult. I think that it is a skill game, but sometimes you get unlucky in that skill game. And I think that there’s a lot of guys that are very, very good on the superspeedways that just have been very, very unlucky in the last few years.
“We’ve been fortunate; we’ve been on the other side of it. That hammer hasn’t hit on us yet, but I mean, we could break out of the next five Daytona 500 wins, who knows, right? We’ve been fortunate, but it’s still, in the end, a skill game and making sure you’re putting yourself in the right position. I take a lot of pride in it, I really do — they’re definitely not by chance or by accident.”