By Tuesday morning, barely a day and a half after the NASCAR flagman fluttered his checkered cloth above Denny Hamlin’s victorious Toyota racer, the Daytona 500 was already the ghost of triumphs past for the winning driver.
Hamlin, who grew up in suburban Richmond and whose racing career started on Virginia’s short tracks, was in New York City going through the annual media drill for every winner of the 500.
He made a lighthearted TV appearance that morning on “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” looking relaxed in jeans and a casual shirt. He laughed about his good fortune avoiding the spectacular multi-car crashes in the late laps.
He did the obligatory interviews, a few in person, others by phone, including one with a columnist writing for his hometown newspaper.
But Hamlin was already thinking ahead. He was focused on the second race of the season, Sunday’s 500-miler at the 1½-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, a race that shapes up to be a most intriguing NASCAR Cup Series event.
It’s the first race with a new rules package devised by NASCAR. Every on-track moment will count, starting with the Cup cars’ opening practice scheduled for 11:35 a.m. Friday.
The changes in horsepower and aerodynamics are supposed to make for close racing, something that has frequently not been the case on NASCAR’s many 1½-mile speedways in recent seasons. All too often, the cars have been so aero-sensitive that the lead car in “clean air” had an insurmountable advantage over those trailing in “dirty air.”
Test sessions using the new rules package drew mixed reviews. Some drivers said the changes will make the cars too easy to drive at places like the Atlanta track, removing the premium on driving skill. Other drivers said closer racing will demand plenty of skill and fans will appreciate that.
Hamlin, who didn’t participate in the testing, was eager to get on the Atlanta track to find out for himself.
“I’m looking forward to Atlanta,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be interesting. The engines have been cut back 200 horsepower (from 750 to 550). That’s a big deal. I haven’t gotten to drive it [the new rules package] yet.”
He said he expects the cars to run closer together at Atlanta than they have in the recent past, but not lap after lap in packs of 20 or more as they have at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, the tour’s two longest and fastest ovals.
“At Daytona,” Hamlin said, “you run wide open the entire time. Atlanta especially is one of the more challenging tracks. … The lack of grip makes it really, really tough.
“I think the cars will be more spread out at Atlanta.”
Hamlin’s Daytona 500 victory was his second in the series’ premier event. He also won it in 2016. In 61 Daytona 500s, there have been a dozen multitime winners. Only two are active — Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, who won in 2006 and 2013. (That’s assuming Michael Waltrip, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all remain inactive.)
Hamlin, who has 32 career Cup wins, knows winning the opener at Daytona doesn’t necessarily signal a great season to follow.
Austin Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500 and didn’t win another race all year. Kurt Busch did the same thing in 2017 — a win at Daytona followed by an 0-for-35 stat sheet the rest of the season.
Hamlin, however, followed his 2016 Daytona win with a reasonably good season. He added wins at the Watkins Glen International road course that August and at Richmond Raceway that September.
He said it’s up to him and his race team to do the work it takes to have an even better season after winning at Daytona to open 2019.
NASCAR’s point system — which last year began awarding playoff points to drivers who win races or the stages that split each event — has changed the way early-season winners approach the rest of the year.
A win virtually guarantees that a driver qualifies for NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs, but the extra points can go a long way toward ushering a driver through the playoff-elimination process and preserving his eligibility to the winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
A team serious about winning the championship has to race week in and week out, Hamlin said.
“You can’t take any weeks off,” he said. “Before, once you won, you could take it easy whenever you wanted to and wait for the playoffs. Not any more.”
Hamlin’s record at Atlanta is mixed. In 19 starts he has won once, the 2012 event, and has three other top-five finishes. He qualified on the pole for the 2010 race. He’s had his share of poor finishes as well — finishing out of the top 10 seven times.
Sunday’s race, new rules and all, offers an immediate and rigorous test of how serious his team can be about winning more than one great race in 2019.