AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin burst onto the scene a decade ago when he showed up at Daytona International Speedway as a rookie and won the first exhibition race of Speedweeks.
Hamlin beat Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon that night, and an article the next day from a newspaper in a city with deep racing roots opened with “Denny Who Did What?”
It was quite the arrival for a cherub-faced short track racer from Virginia who had clawed his way into a ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin had dreamed of becoming a NASCAR star his entire childhood, and he cheered hero Bill Elliott twice a year from the grandstands at Richmond International Raceway.
Racing was all he wanted to do, and if it didn’t work out, he might have made a career as a welder.
His success was immediate, two wins and a spot in the Chase as a rookie. He finished third in the overall standings and seemed to be on the fast track toward a Sprint Cup title.
But the title never came, not even during an eight-win season in 2010 when he let Johnson off the ropes and coughed away the championship.
It was an embarrassing defeat for Hamlin, who had morphed along the way from the shy and socially awkward Southern kid into a rich race car driver with a swagger and an entourage of wealthy playboys. He became friends with Michael Jordan and Bubba Watson; spent an offseason in Arizona working on his golf game; bought courtside seats to the Charlotte Hornets; and became known for throwing epic parties.
It’s a glamorous lifestyle, but it came with a catch: Failure to win big races and championships opened up Hamlin to criticism that he was incapable of taking the next step in his career.
He proved otherwise Sunday by winning his first Daytona 500 with a dramatic last-lap pass of teammate Matt Kenseth, then a door-to-door battle to the finish line with Martin Truex. Hamlin won “The Great American Race” by 0.010 seconds, the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.
At last, a win in a crown jewel event.
All that swagger had finally transferred onto the race track to give Hamlin a crowning moment in his career. Career victory No. 27 stood above all the others and pushed Hamlin into an elite category of driver, the one place he’s always wanted to be.
The win was considerably special for Hamlin and the Joe Gibbs Racing organization in that it ended Gibbs’ 23-year drought in NASCAR’s biggest race. The three-time Super Bowl-winning coach now has two Daytona 500 rings. It was also Toyota’s first victory in “The Great American Race,” and came three months after Toyota celebrated its first Cup championship, won by Kyle Busch and Gibbs.
But on a personal level for Hamlin, the victory gives him the clout he’s worked hard to earn throughout the garage. In a sport in which few drivers are willing to lash out at the sanctioning body, Hamlin has never shied away from criticizing procedures. He’s been fined several times for using Twitter to take a shot at NASCAR, and he’s yet to back down from pointing out injustices or inconsistencies.
Behind the scenes, Hamlin was the driving force in unifying the drivers into what ultimately grew into a driver council that debuted last season. Hamlin was the ringleader of a group text chain of drivers who were disgruntled with the on-track product and the direction NASCAR wanted to take with the rules package.
The group text still exists, but also graduated into a formal council of elected drivers who meet with NASCAR to discuss various issues. Hamlin followed the recent deal that created charters for the owners, and pored over the agreement to see if the drivers were being slighted. Although no one would credit him as the leader of the garage, his behind-the-scenes efforts to unify the drivers into one collective voice has paid dividends for all the competitors.
No longer that chubby kid who stunned the field in his debut Daytona race, Hamlin is a 35-year-old father and the most-tenured driver in JGR’s four-car stable. His sponsorship deal with FedEx, that dates to his rookie season, is also one of the longest pairings in the sport.
He still hangs with Jordan — the former NBA superstar cheered from Hamlin’s pits a year ago as Hamlin again fell short in a championship bid — and he has an air of braggadocio that shows how comfortable he is in the spotlight.
Now, with a Daytona 500 win, he’s earned his shining moment.