As Good—and As Close—As It Gets
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS TROTMAN/NASCAR/GETTY IMAGESCHECKERED PASS A rehabbed Hamlin (11) got his first Daytona 500 win, by the narrowest margin in the history of the Great Race, pipping Truex by .01 of a second. Denny Hamlin doesn't like to exercise. Sure, he'll do it—but only because staying fit is part of the job of a NASCAR driver. He's certainly no Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Sprint Cup champion who competes in triathlons. "I'll never be the guy who puts on running shoes and goes and does five miles," says the 35-year-old Hamlin, who does his racing while seated for Joe Gibbs's team. "But put a ball in my hand, make it competitive, and I can go all day." So he plays basketball. A lot of basketball. He had a full-length court built at his Cornelius, N.C., home and competes in a pickup league. And he plays hard. "I run around like I'm actually good at defense," he says. "But I'm a good team player." His defensive zeal got the better of him in September when, during a pickup game, a ballhandler's move buckled him and sent him to the ground clutching his right knee. He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. This was less than two weeks before the start of the Chase, for which Hamlin had qualified (for the ninth time in his 11-year Cup career) by winning in March at Martinsville. An ACL tear usually shelves an athlete for months. But Hamlin decided to race through it—no surprise, given his threshold for pain. A month before the 2010 season he had torn his left ACL playing hoops and held off on having surgery until after his sixth race. When Hamlin won the opening race of the '15 Chase, it seemed as if the bum right knee wouldn't hold him back. And it didn't. Hamlin's '15 playoff run ended in the Contender Round, and it was a heroic effort. If not for his teammate Kyle Busch, who rallied to win the championship after a February accident at Daytona that busted both his legs, Hamlin would've been heralded as the toughest SOB on the Cup Series. Hamlin finally went under the knife at the end of November. Afterward he was laid up for five weeks. The rehab that followed, he says, "was much tougher on me than the first one," and took away from his preparation for this season. He arrived stiff-legged at Daytona but proceeded to win the Sprint Unlimited race on Feb. 13 (a nonpoints exhibition for 25 top drivers) and light up the speed charts in practice. It was a familiar routine for Hamlin, a three-time Unlimited winner who'd finished in the top five in his last two starts in the Great American Race. His best shot at breaking into the Winner's Circle at Daytona this year would be to stick with his equally quick Toyota teammates: Busch, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. On Sunday, the five Toyotas dominated, leading 156 of the 200 laps. Hamlin, after a flubbed green-flag pit stop dropped him out of the lead into seventh with 40 laps to go, had resigned himself to staying on the bottom groove of the track for Kenseth, a two-time 500 winner who, with five laps to go, seemed destined to grab the checkered flag once again. When Kevin Harvick made a charge on the top groove in his Stewart-Haas Chevy, Hamlin swung high to block him and wound up getting shoved so hard that he was soon closing on Kenseth. Seeing that, Kenseth moved up to block Hamlin but lost control, slewing sideways as the field swept past. (He would avoid wrecking, but fell all the way back to 14th at the finish.) By the final turn Hamlin was right off Truex's passenger-side door, which he banged and banged again at nearly 200 mph in a bid to siphon momentum. Even after crossing the finish line Hamlin wasn't sure his strategy had made a difference. But it had, giving him the victory by .01 of a second, the closest finish in the race's 58-year history. It took a few TV replays for Hamlin to appreciate what he had done: won Toyota's first 500 in the manufacturer's 11 tries, snapped Joe Gibbs Racing's 22-year losing streak in the race, and booked a spot in the 2016 Chase. And when the immensity of the moment finally washed over him, he buckled again—but there was no pain this time. TWO PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS TROTMAN/NASCAR/GETTY IMAGESFINISHING TOUCH Fans at the renovated Speedway were treated to a wild finish, as Hamlin (11) squeezed past teammate Kenseth (20) on the final turn, sending Kenseth to the wall and setting up a dash to the line with Truex (78). PHOTOSEAN GARDNER/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK BURTON/APWITHIN REACH Hamlin took his Daytona success to new heights on Sunday, giving Joe Gibbs Racing its first Daytona victory in 23 years.