Why Denny Hamlin is the Favorite at 2014 Daytona 500 After Avoiding Duels Crash

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

Denny Hamlin is carrying lots of new hardware and momentum into this Daytona 500.
Denny Hamlin is carrying lots of new hardware and momentum into this Daytona 500.Associated Press

Perhaps it is an omen that this time, for NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin, all the wrecking was behind him.

The mayhem at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday unfolded as Hamlin hustled his No. 11 Toyota toward the checkered flag in the second of the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 commonly referred to as "the Duels."

For his efforts in winning the crash-marred second Duel, Hamlin was rewarded with a starting position in the second row for Sunday's 500, on the outside of Matt Kenseth, winner of Thursday's first Duel.

But there was more to Hamlin's victory in a non-points qualifier than meets the eye. For starters, it came on the bumper of his very impressive run the previous Saturday night while winning the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race.

That event is reserved for pole winners from the 2013-14 season and past event winners. In other words, the field was only 18 drivers. But they were arguably 18 of the best drivers in the sport (let's not get into a debate here about Danica Patrick, who qualified by virtue of her winning the Daytona 500 pole last year).

The point is that Hamlin smoked the field.

Sure, he couldn't have done it without crew chief Darian Grubb and the rest of the gang in the pits and back at the Joe Gibbs Racing shop. It's true with any driver who wins a race in NASCAR that they never do it alone.

But when they're out there driving, drivers sure can feel all alone sometimes. And there were times last year when Hamlin no doubt felt alone and lost.

Everything seemed fine for Hamlin at the outset of last season as well, but it started drifting awry in the fourth points race of the season when he wrecked Joey Logano at Bristol Motor Speedway, and the two drivers nearly came to blows afterward. On the last lap of the next race the following week at Auto Club Speedway, Logano repaid the favor and then some.

Although Logano later insisted he did nothing wrong or on purpose, he drifted up the track in his No. 22 Penske Racing Ford and ran into the side of Hamlin's car as they raced for position. Both drivers lost control of their cars and crashed into the outside wall, and then Hamlin's car shot back across the track before slamming nose-first into the inside wall. The impact was so hard that it lifted Hamlin's car off the ground.

Hamlin was airlifted to a hospital, where it was determined he had suffered a fractured vertebrae. He didn't realize it at the timeor even later, when he returned after missing five racesbut his season effectively was over the moment he suffered the injury, his championship dreams for 2013 squelched.

When Hamlin returned, he didn't feel close to 100 percent. Yet he pushed himself harder than ever, knowing that only race wins could keep his streak alive of making every Chase for the Sprint Cup since he had become a full-time driver in 2006.

Maybe he pushed too hard. Maybe he just wasn't healthy enough and couldn't admit it to himself.

Hamlin is looking more confident than he did at almost any point last season.
Hamlin is looking more confident than he did at almost any point last season.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

But it wasn't until Hamlin finally won his only race of the season in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, long after he had missed the Chase, that he at last looked like the same confident driver who had won 22 races and finished in the top six in points four times in the previous seven seasons.

Now he seems to be there again. Relaxed. Confident. With great equipment underneath him and a chemistry with the capable Grubb that continues to develop after getting sidetracked last season by the injury and all the distractions that came with it.

Suddenly, Hamlin is undefeated since last November and has every reason to believe that he has the kind of momentum that drivers in this sport rarely are able to harness.

"Right now it's like a huge snowball that's really like an avalanche," Hamlin told USA Today (via Jeff Gluck) after winning his third race in a row Thursday. "It's just not stopping."

Anyone who has been paying even marginal attention this Speedweeks cannot disagree. That's what makes Hamlin the odds-on favorite to win this Sunday's Daytona 500.