Hamlin could become 4th repeat Daytona 500 champion

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Denny Hamlin rode the escalator to a stadium concourse and spotted his Daytona 500 championship show car on display and wrapped to resemble its appearance moments after the race.

Confetti stuck to the window. The No. 11 Toyota was scuffed up on the sides, a mark of 200 laps of rugged racing.

Not far from away at the Toyota foyer, there hung a banner of Hamlin with his arms raised toward the sky in celebration of his first Daytona 500 victory.

Hamlin took in the festive scenery and had just one thought: Let's do it again.

''Some of NASCAR's greatest drivers haven't won two of them,'' Hamlin said, ''much less two in a row.''

Hamlin is trying to become just the fourth driver to go back-to-back and win consecutive Daytona 500s. Richard Petty (1973-1974) and Cale Yarborough ((1983-1984) both won consecutive Daytona 500s, and no driver had his name etched on the Harley J. Earl Trophy two straight years since Sterling Marlin in 1994 and 1995.

Hamlin might soon learn successfully defending a Daytona 500 championship is a tougher challenge than even winning the first one. If confidence played as much of a role as the engine, Hamlin just might have the best shot of extending his Daytona dominance.

''If anyone can go back-to-back, this is the year for us,'' Hamlin said.

But could the finish be as thrilling ?

Hamlin stayed in the gas for a door-to-door dash to the checkered flag that ended in a photo finish with Martin Truex Jr. He beat Truex by 0.010 seconds, the closest finish in the history of the race.

''There's no Daytona 500 winner that didn't have the right breaks at the right time,'' Hamlin said.

Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards stuck close together for most of the race, and they got assistance from Truex, who became a de facto JGR teammate at Furniture Row Racing because of a Toyota affiliation.

Kenseth led Truex until the final lap when Hamlin finally jumped out of line. Starting a second line on the outside, Hamlin got a push from Kevin Harvick that allowed him to catch Kenseth. Kenseth tried to throw a block but Hamlin wedged into the middle between Kenseth and Truex, and Kenseth had to save his car from wrecking.

Reflecting a year later, Hamlin said the strong push from Harvick was the clutch move of the race.

''The biggest break I got was that outside line forming as good as it did,'' Hamlin said. ''The commitment from the 4 car to push us instead of making a move, that was a key moment for us. Typically, lines get messed up when someone tries to make a move and do something for themselves. That's when the line goes nowhere. The outside line was very unselfish and stuck in one line and that was fortunate for me.''

The Toyota pack-and-push to the finish might also be implausible among the Chevrolets and Fords that are sure to run at the front.

''I think it will be difficult to pull off the same plan,'' said Busch, the 2015 Cup champion. ''I think we have to reengineer a little bit of what we've already done and try to make it better.''

Hamlin is clearly feeling bullish about his chances next weekend. He unveiled the custom Jordan Jumpman sneaks he'll wear in Speedweeks races at Daytona International Speedway. Hamlin, who forged a friendship with Michael Jordan, has black shoes with the date of his first career late model win (Sept. 12, 2002), the motto from his 2013 comeback (''I CAN I WI11'') from a back injury and his autograph on the back.

Hamlin, a Charlotte Hornets season-ticket holder, had Jordan rooting from atop the pit box in the JGR's failed bid to win the 2014 NASCAR championship at the season finale in Homestead-Miami Speedway.

His Airness could offer a tip or two about the pressures of a repeat.

Jordan, of course, still leads his buddy 6-0 in season championships.

The Daytona 500 is the biggest of Hamlin's 29 career victories and he has at least one win in each of 11 full seasons. He has some added motivation this year to win for ailing car owner J.D. Gibbs. Hamlin and Gibbs actually share a J.D. in their initials - Hamlin's given name is James Dennis Hamlin and Gibbs' stand for James Dean Gibbs. Hamlin unveiled the ''J.D.'' over the driver's side window of the No. 11 Toyota.

The 47-year-old Gibbs, co-owner with his dad at JGR, has been absent from the track as he battles health issues that affect his brain function.

''With the struggles and tough times that family has gone through the last year, it was important for me to kind of pay tribute by putting his name on the roof,'' Hamlin said.

Hamlin has felt a kinship with the Gibbs family since he was a kid and met Joe. The 36-year-old Hamlin is close on a contract extension that could make him a JGR lifer.

Hamlin will forever be known as the 2016 Daytona 500 champion.

''It's a very proud moment when you get announced somewhere publicly as the Daytona 500 champion,'' he said. ''It's great to have that label stamped on your resume for as long as you're around, maybe even after.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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