By Jerry Bonkowski
Finally, something went right for Denny Hamlin.
The Virginia native has long been the close but no cigar kind of guy. He’s won so many times at places like Martinsville, Pocono, Richmond and other tracks.
He also has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup several times, including going all the way to the championship round in 2014 before finishing third of four finalists.
But when it came to winning some of NASCAR’s biggest prizes, Hamlin always came up short.
Not anymore, though.
By winning Sunday’s 58th Daytona 500, Hamlin has now checked off one of the two biggest things on his and pretty much every other NASCAR driver’s bucket list, the ever-elusive Daytona 500 win.
Hamlin has now done something that most other NASCAR drivers have never done in their careers, including NASCAR Hall of Famers Rusty Wallace and Ned Jarrett, as well as Tony Stewart, whose last run for his hoped-for, first-ever 500 win came to an end when he was injured in an ATV accident late last month.
And given that Hamlin is now the first driver to qualify for this year’s Chase, what better way for him to bookend the 2016 season than by winning Daytona and finishing with the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway to wrap up the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule?
Granted, there are 35 races still to go, starting with this Sunday’s second race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
On one hand, Hamlin can take a breath and relax, knowing that he’s made the Chase.
On the other hand, his win at Daytona could transform Hamlin into the one thing he’s strived to be his whole career: not just a one-time Cup champ, but a multi-championship winner.
Winning Daytona has transformed the careers of so many drivers, from Jeff Gordon to Jimmie Johnson. But Hamlin has so much more to take away from what he did Sunday.
Not only did he win the Great American Race for the first time in his career, he did it in the first Cup points-paying race with new crew chief Mike Wheeler.
He also did it on the 47th birthday of Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs, and which will hopefully serve as a huge left for a great guy who has suffered through serious medical issues the last year.
And then there’s team owner Joe Gibbs, who decided to take a chance on a young kid from Chesterfield, Va., just outside of Richmond, seeing something in Hamlin that other team owners missed.
To partly repay Gibbs’ faith in him, Hamlin gave the man they call “The Coach” his fifth win as a team owner at Daytona, but only his second Daytona 500 triumph – and his first in 23 years, the first time coming with Dale Jarrett in 1993.
Interestingly, this wasn’t Hamlin’s first Daytona win. He’s also won the Sprint Unlimited three times, including twice in the last three years, most recently last week as a prelude to Sunday’s biggest win of his career.
In winning both the Unlimited and the 500, Hamlin becomes only the fifth driver to ever win both races in the same year. The others were Bobby Allison (1982), Bill Elliott (1987), Dale Jarrett (did so twice in 1996 and 2000) and Jeff Gordon (1997).
To put an exclamation mark on Sunday’s win, don’t be surprised if Hamlin goes out and dominates en route to victory at Atlanta, if for nothing else but to prove that his triumph at Daytona was not a fluke.
And in the process, he may have kicked off what could become the biggest, best and greatest season of his career to date.
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