<
>

Denny Hamlin hoping to add more Daytona hardware to dream garage

Denny Hamlin is angling to be the first repeat winner of the Daytona 500 in more than 20 years. Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Anyone who knows Denny Hamlin would not find it surprising at all that he, when making plans for the mansion he moved into last year, already had an area set up for a Daytona 500 trophy.

Oh, and cars, too.

Hamlin has a showroom that currently has his winning car from the 2006 preseason Daytona race as well as his Daytona 500 trophy. The 2016 Daytona 500-winning car will find its way in there most likely next week after Joe Gibbs Racing gets it back from Daytona International Speedway, which uses the Daytona 500-winning car for a year as part of the track tours.

"From the living room, you can see the car," Hamlin said with a grin. "I have this fun room that has my golf simulator and my racing simulator and all that -- you're sitting on the couch watching the theater and it's just a big glass wall that looks into the show cars.

"I have the pedestal with the Daytona 500 trophy with a big spotlight going right down on it. I have that [2006] car sitting in there. My family scooped up all the confetti from Victory Lane last year so we have it sitting in the garage floor."

Sounds pretty sweet. Those who have visited Hamlin's house and seen the setup confirm its awesomeness. For those who have worked with Hamlin throughout the years, it brings back memories.

"Going back and seeing that car from '06, it's amazing to see how far we've come and remember that night, it's definitely a special moment," said Hamlin crew chief Mike Wheeler, who was on that 2006 team. "Knowing that, you'd like to go back 10 years from now and see that car sitting next to it.

"He's built a nice little showroom floor. It's pretty cool."

Wheeler semi-joked that Hamlin is mature enough not to make his trophy area gaudy, indicating that a younger Hamlin (one who is not 36 years old) might have done it in a more flashy way. Wheeler doesn't think it's too over the top for someone who has made the millions that Hamlin has throughout his career.

"It makes him, human, too," Wheeler said. "If we all had the money, we'd try to do the same dream. He's in a fortunate situation to actually do it."

So it's safe to say, Hamlin has enjoyed life as the defending Daytona 500 champion. Just like other past winners have said, getting introduced as a Daytona 500 champion conjures up feelings that don't occur with any other NASCAR race.

"It's nothing esthetically, nothing you could touch or feel," Hamlin said. "The emotion side of it. You're very proud. You have that title stamped on you forever.

"I've been to three or four events where they introduce you as the 2016 [Daytona 500] champion and It's just a great feeling, career-changing for me."

In that showroom, he doesn't need a highlight reel of the finish. He has seen it so many times over the past year he knows how he went from fourth entering the final lap to the victory thanks to a push from Kevin Harvick and a dicey move by Matt Kenseth that allowed him to beat Martin Truex Jr. by inches.

"It really took me riding in Kevin Harvick's in-car camera to watch what we did for me to piece together what happened at the right time," Hamlin said. "You see the push that I got on the back straightaway, you could see something was stirring up.

"It's important for myself to watch film back and I watched the end of that race, not necessarily for enjoyment but to learn in case that situation comes up again how I can execute that same finish."

Now comes the pesky task of repeating what he did a year ago. Hamlin knows the roll-the-dice nature of restrictor-plate racing limits his ability to control his own destiny as far as winning back-to-back Daytona 500s. No driver has accomplished that since Sterling Marlin did it in 1994 and 1995.

Plus, Hamlin knows he might not get total help from his teammates, ones who might still feel a little bitter over last year. He jumped out of the line of Toyotas to make that move on the final lap, passing both teammates Kyle Busch and Kenseth.

"Both of them are probably kicking themselves more than mad at me," Hamlin said. "I didn't think anyone thought that was the case [that I broke protocol]. Anytime the white flag comes out, it's every man for himself.

"It's tough when you have such a team thing that we had going on last year, that all works great until the end comes. ... We're not out there to help our teammate to win the Daytona 500. We are if we can't win it ourselves but it's every man for themselves."

Kenseth has won the Daytona 500 twice. Kyle Busch still seeks his first one.

"Kyle is probably going to be very selfish this year -- as he should," Hamlin said. "It's such a hard race to win. There are so many great drivers that have never won the race."

While Hamlin had raced for a decade, his crew chief was in his first race in that role. The former lead engineer on the Hamlin team, Wheeler spent one season in the Xfinity Series before taking over the Hamlin crew.

"It was real exciting to go through, but at the same point I was so new to it, I didn't know how to go through the situations," Wheeler said. "I was just trying to make sure I stayed composed.

"Looking back at it, if I had to do it again, I'd be a lot more excited and let loose. ... I was so worried about Atlanta [the next week], that I didn't really enjoy it because I was so worried about my job and making sure I did everything I could for my job."

Now the pressure is on to repeat. Kind of. What are the odds that Hamlin will need another spotlight in his showroom and carve out a spot for another Daytona 500 winning car? Hamlin thinks they are actually pretty good.

"There's no 500 winner that didn't have the right breaks at the right time," Hamlin said. "That's very important. It's all about putting yourself in position to where you're going to give yourself the best odds to stay up front."

What Hamlin likely won't do, if he does win another trophy, is start moving his racing stuff throughout his house. At his indoor basketball court, the court doesn't have any indication of Hamlin as a Daytona 500 winner.

"I try to keep all the racing stuff in one area of the house and not spread it out," Hamlin said. "I didn't think to incorporate it into the gym."

Maybe there is a reason for that. He has to continue to think about how to win more Daytona 500s.

"We've run up front at every superspeedway race and over the last four years," Hamlin said. "I feel like we've been a team to win just about every restrictor-plate race.

"I feel as confident as any that we can go out there and do it again. ... I feel like I've learned a few things over the last few years that have increased my odds of winning these races."