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Is Hamlin an overlooked contender at Daytona?

July 03, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Is Hamlin an overlooked contender at Daytona?
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Why no love for Denny? 

Oh, I guess grammatically, that should be, "Why is there no love for Denny?"

Journalistically speaking, it probably should read, "Why is there no love for Denny Hamlin, 33, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing?"

But you no doubt get my drift.

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Hamlin, one of 10 drivers with at least one win this season, is a so-so 17th in points heading into Saturday night's NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Missing the pomp and circumstance of the season-opening Daytona 500, the July race at DIS is no less important in the grand scheme of all things NASCAR. That it's held on the July 4th weekend always gives the 400 a bit of more punch than your typical NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

Tony Stewart has won four of the summer scorchers (in temperature and often enough in action). He's yet to win this season. A lot of folks think this is where Stewart turns the proverbial corner. 

Perhaps. For whatever reason, Stewart's been able to succeed in the July race at Daytona in spite of his struggles at the same track each February.

He likely will be asked this week why he feels that's been the case. Should that occur, a betting man would wager that Stewart's reply would resemble this: 

"Don't you think if we knew why, we'd fix it?"

Elsewhere, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Daytona in February and is trying to go 2-for-2 by adding a win in the 400.

Only five drivers have accomplished the feat, which either makes it historically significant or merely a statistical oddity.

Win the Daytona 500 and they'll talk about you for months. Win it with the last name Earnhardt and they'll name babies after you. 

Win the Coke Zero 400 and they name their goldfish after you.

But back to Hamlin, driver of the aforementioned No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing…

His teammates have made headlines this year. The organization said only last week that Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Toyota, had been signed to a multi-year contract extension. That he's yet to win a single race this year is no cause for alarm. He looks good in yellow, won seven times the previous season and his fourth-place points position is a comfort, should wins continue to remain elusive.

Teammate Kyle Busch, at 5-0, is undefeated in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series. Unfortunately for Busch, he's yet to parlay such perfection into success at the Cup level. But with one win already in the books, making the 10-race Chase isn't a concern for the No 18 team. What to do once they get there, well, that's another matter.

Busch is only 29. His best racing days are likely still ahead of him. In whichever series he chooses to compete.

But back to Hamlin, who was last seen exiting the care center at Kentucky Speedway

As was race winner Brad Keselowski, who is well on his way to being remembered more for his winner's circle actions than his race wins.

Keselowski sliced open his hand while attempting to open a champagne bottle in Victory Lane at Kentucky. He has the proper skill set for racing competitively at 200 mph, but seems to have issues with glassware.

But back to Hamlin…

Finally. Which seems to be the problem. Hamlin finished second to Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona, then went out and won the next restrictor-plate race at Talladega Superspeedway.

And yet he's not on many folks' radars, outside of his immediate family and assorted teammates, heading into this weekend's race. 

Granted, before this year, Hamlin's results on restrictor-plate tracks hadn't exactly been noteworthy. The Talladega win was his first on a plate track, and his runner-up at Daytona in February was just his third top-five in 17 starts there.

After back-to-back top-five finishes at Dover and Pocono, Hamlin's finished no higher than 26th in the past three races.

Were those Daytona and Talladega results anomalies?

Restrictor-plate races are crapshoots, wide-open affairs with success more dependent on which line a driver chooses and when he makes that choice.

But that hasn't kept some of the same drivers from dominating in previous years.

There are, it seems, good restrictor-plate racers and fortunate ones. Where Hamlin falls has yet to be determined.

Jeff Gordon has more plate-race wins (12) than any other active driver. Earnhardt Jr. has eight. Jimmie Johnson and Stewart have five apiece.

Hamlin has one. But it was the most recent, and around here that type of thing shouldn't be ignored.

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