They say Virginia is for Lovers, and now it’s for Daytona 500 champions, too!
Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Chesterfield County native, took the checkered flag in the 58th running of the Daytona 500, claiming his first victory in the biggest race of the year. Hamlin beat Martin Truex, Jr. in the closest margin of victory (0.010 seconds) in the history of the Daytona 500.
“It's the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” said Hamlin. “I haven't got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself. It's just the circumstances, J.D. Gibbs, who found me about 12, 13 years ago, it's his birthday today, he's been so pivotal to myself and my team and supporting me for the past 11 years.”
Leading a race high of 95 laps, Hamlin dominated the race. He managed the draft, made calculated moves, and in the end won the biggest race of his career. With drafting help from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Hamlin was able to stay up front all race long. Not only was this Daytona 500 victory the first for Hamlin, he was able to deliver Toyota their first Daytona 500 win since entering the sport 10 years ago. Hamlin also won a second Daytona 500 for Joe Gibbs Racing; ending a 23-year winless streak since their last Daytona 500 victory in 1993.
“This is very difficult for me to put in words. I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota” said David Wilson, President of Toyota Racing Development. “I'll start by saying it's our single biggest race in our company's history. I'll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003.”
It all started as a dream for Hamlin as a young boy, who stood in line to meet his hero, Washington Redskins Coach, Joe Gibbs. “I was a huge Redskins fan and it was 1992 and they just won the Super Bowl and I lived in Virginia so I was a huge Joe Gibbs fan. So I thought it was awesome that my favorite football coach is starting a race team, this is perfect and this is ideal for me. I told him, ‘Mr. Gibbs, I just started racing go-karts and I’d really like to drive for you one day and I’d love to win a championship for you.’ He’s like, ‘Okay son.’ I took my picture with him and Dale Jarrett and I will never forget getting that and I remember I cried for two weeks.”
Hamlin moved up from go-karts to stock cars, winning the first stock car race he competed in at Langley Speedway in Hampton, VA. He moved up to Late Models in 2000, winning 10 races in 2002 in this division. He topped this career achievement in 2003 when he won 25 races and 30 poles, out of only 36 races. In 2004, Hamlin’s dream of driving for Coach Joe Gibbs finally came true. He was signed as a developmental driver for the team of his childhood hero.
Hamlin eventually moved his way up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, when he started competing full-time in the series in 2006. He won the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year in 2006, and has never looked back. Claiming his 27th victory this weekend with the Daytona 500, Hamlin has competed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 11 years. Sunday, Hamlin was able to grant a personal wish of his seven-year-old self, when he wrote a story in his elementary school class, entitled “The Daytona 500,” where he declared “My wish is to win the Daytona 500.”
“If I remember right, it was second grade, so I'm probably seven-years-old. I said I wanted to win it,” said Hamlin. “I think if you look at the date, it's like February something 1998. I missed it by a little bit on the date. I didn't know Mike Wheeler back then, but Kerry Barton was my best friend, so he was going to be my crew chief. Ernie Elliott was going to change my tires and I wanted my car to look just like Bill Elliott's.”
The pride of Chesterfield, Hamlin’s roots run deep. Sunday, those roots, and the wish of a seven-year-old led him to a Daytona 500 victory and right into NASCAR history!