Denny Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart are looking to make history on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway as they seek to become the first to win three consecutive Daytona 500s.
Hamlin has won three of the last five 500s (2016), but the last two have come with Gabehart, who moved to the Cup Series to lead the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team in 2019.
"This one obviously would be special if I could win for many reasons, but mostly the history part of it knowing that no one else has done it," Hamlin said.
Only three other drivers have won two consecutive Daytona 500s – Sterling Marlin (1994, 1995), Cale Yarborough (1983, 1984) and Richard Petty (1973, 1974).
With the switch to the Next-Gen car coming in 2022, this year’s Daytona 500 package will have a similar feel to last year and will feature the same Goodyear tire setup that has been used since the 2019 July race.
"Well, certainly speaking only to the Daytona 500 – there are way less changes from 2020 to 2021 then there was from ’19 to ’20," Gabehart said. "So, I certainly feel, you know, more confident about where we are and how our cars are going to drive and perform…heading into 2021.
"On top of that, Denny and I having two years to work together and kind of understand each other and what we’re thinking and how aggressive to be and when. We’ve got a lot of that under our belt now, so, you know, I definitely have a lot more understanding what to expect but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to execute down there. There’s a lot of variables to try to overcome."
In their two years together, Hamlin and Gabehart have an impressive resume at the two superspeedways – Daytona and Talladega – with a series leading three wins, six top fives and a 9.4 average finish in the eight-race span.
"Those are wildly overachieving numbers for anyone statistically, but it’s been eight races running of doing it well," Gabehart said. "I think that really goes to his understanding of what he needs in the car."
Another key to Hamlin’s success on the superspeedways is his relationship with longtime spotter Chris Lambert.
"Spotters are important every week, but certainly at superspeedways there a whole another level worth of importance," Gabehart said. "Denny and Chris have been working together for a lot of years now and they’ve just really, refined their craft and the two of them understand what each other’s thinking and that’s a really big deal."
Hamlin extended his streak to five consecutive top-four finishes at superspeedways with his victory last October at Talladega. Since Hamlin was in the middle of the playoff picture, the strategy at Talladega was much different – led 26 laps from the pole with a 20.1 average running position – compared to the Daytona 500.
"Talladega was brutal because we had a great car and ended up winning the race, but I don’t think a lot of people realize we had a car that could have ran up front all day, I think," Gabehart said. "But the way the numbers shook out it just never made sense for us to take that risk. We were just in a unique position where we weren’t totally locked in, but it never made sense to take risk ’till the end.
"Well, the Daytona 500…you’re starting from scratch. So, it’s all about winning the race. Get as many points as you can, get up front and win the race and not worry about the rest of it. To do that you’re going to have to be around at the end. That’s one of Denny’s real calling cards at these places is knowing how to get to the end of the race and give yourself a shot. But you know all the other stuff is out the window.
"It’s about winning the Daytona 500."