Denny Hamlin has three Daytona 500 wins to his credit, and it’s not by accident. It can be attributed to his top equipment, his aggressive driving style, which allows him to work his way up to the front on the superspeedway, and his ability to remain calm under pressure during a time of unbelievable stress when he’s trying to outthink and outmaneuver his competition in the closing moments of NASCAR‘s biggest race, all while traveling at speeds nearing 200 miles an hour.
This week during a testing session of the Next Gen car at the World Center of Racing, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn’t appear to be testing anything. Instead, he was in full-on practice mode for the season-opening race next month, pushing the car to its limits. And those testing around him took note.
Denny Hamlin drove aggressively during Next Gen testing at Daytona, half expecting to crash
After winning back-to-back Daytona 500s in 2019 and 2020, Denny Hamlin came up short in 2021, finishing fifth. This year, the 41-year-old driver is hoping to return to victory lane on NASCAR’s biggest stage, which would give him four trophies in the last seven years.
This year, more than any, could prove to be especially challenging because the Next Gen car has effectively leveled the playing field with all cars starting from the ground up. This offseason, an accelerated testing schedule has allowed teams to get up to speed on the car and explore areas where they might find an advantage over the competition.
For the drivers, the only way that happens is by running laps. Hamlin tested the car at Daytona last September and got a feel for how the car handles on the superspeedway. After his session at the track this week, he admitted it was more of a practice than testing and knew full-well that he might end up crashing with his aggressive approach.
“I stayed pretty aggressive. This is going to be pretty much my only practice for the 500,” Hamlin said. “One where it was kind of a freebie where it was 50-50 whether we thought we were going to bring this car back in one piece or not. We just can’t get that aggressive on race week with our practices. We’re here. He (crew chief Chris Gabehart) just thought he’d kind of let me go and get aggressive. I was pretty happy with it all.”
Joey Logano thought aggressive driving might lead to disaster
During one session that included more than a dozen cars, Hamlin made his way up to the front and then backed off, settling in behind different cars, at one point on the rear bumper of the No. 22 of Joey Logano.
The Penske driver admitted he also got aggressive on the track because the racer naturally came out when he got out on the track. He said for a moment the thought crossed his mind that the aggressive driving might prove costly.
“The bumping and shoving gets the cars moving around a lot,” Logano said. “Kurt (Busch), myself, Denny, and Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.), we were all out there shoving each other pretty hard. Racing like we’re coming to the end of the Daytona 500. I don’t know why we do that but it’s a race. There’s race cars on the racetrack. It turns into a race and we race each other…It’s intense to say the least. I was white-knuckling a few times. I thought I’m going to wreck this thing in testing and going to wreck the whole field with me.”
Denny Hamlin spun at Charlotte but it wasn’t because of aggressive driving
Since the Next Gen car was introduced, Denny Hamlin and the other drivers knew they would be starting from scratch. Testing sessions have been where they have learned the most about the car, including how it would handle on different tracks, and how it would perform by itself, and around other cars. As the testing process moved further along, the drivers grew more comfortable and pushed the limits of the machines.
Back in November, Hamlin tested at Charlotte, where he was involved in a single-car spin but managed to save the car from hitting any walls or cars. Interestingly, the incident wasn’t because he was pushing it to the limits.
“The manual that they actually give you to put the car together has the left rear control arm upside down. So that’s a problem,” Hamlin said at the time. “So my rear end was actually skewed to the wrong side because the manual. I mean, we triple-checked. The manual has it wrong. It’s upside down. We got that fixed.”
The Next Gen cars and the drivers have come a long way. Testing is almost complete. The Daytona 500 is just more than a month away, and fans will finally get to see the new car in action for the first time. And you can be sure Hamlin will be in the mix with his aggressive approach, trying to claim his fourth trophy on NASCAR’s grandest stage.