Denny Hamlin had an elusive and exclusive share of Daytona 500 history in his sights. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s No. 11 Toyota had spent nearly half of the Great American Race in the lead, and his bid for an unprecedented third consecutive 500 victory was as promising as any of the three attempts that came before him.
Instead of hitting the trifecta that had escaped the other members of Daytona’s quartet of repeat royalty — Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Sterling Marlin — Hamlin was left irked by a fifth-place finish in the 2021 edition of the Daytona 500. The frustrated feelings stemmed from an unfortunate pit-road shuffle in the team’s final stop for service, but also from the way that any sustained challenges for the lead were slow to develop in the final laps.
“I’m certainly disappointed, simply because I thought we had a dominant car, we won the stages and led a lot of laps,” Hamlin said after posting the seventh top-five finish in his last eight Daytona 500 starts. “But I hate being helpless. I hate not being able to do anything, not being able to use the skillset that I have to make moves.”
Hamlin swept both stage wins and led 98 of the 200 laps, asserting the strength of his No. 11 Toyota from the outset and priming himself to be a late-race contender. After Ford teams then Chevrolet drivers choreographed their final pits stops in manufacturer-aligned groups, Hamlin led the contingent of Toyotas to pit road, handing the lead to Joey Logano on Lap 175.
Once the pit-road exchange sorted out, Ford teams were in command with Hamlin needing to play catch-up as the Toyota brigade tried to reorganize. He managed to avoid the final-lap crash that snared several contenders and allowed Michael McDowell to grab his first Cup Series win.
“We were too far out front. We got on and off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack,” Hamlin said of his pit-stop timing. “I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three (laps) to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth. I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy – in the area where I can make something happen.
“Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that executed too good.”
Hamlin’s day was momentous for other reasons, as the 23XI Racing team that he co-founded with NBA legend Michael Jordan made its debut. Bubba Wallace spent time near the front of the pack, leading one lap before his No. 23 Toyota developed a late-race vibration that required an unscheduled pit stop to fix.
Wallace dropped from the lead lap, and his race ended in a multi-car wreck that left him just shy of the checkered flag in 17th place.
“I thought it was all good,” said Hamlin, who joined Jordan and Wallace in a pre-race interview with FOX Sports. “We worked together quite a few times, and I actually thought he was going to win the second stage, but kind of a teaching moment. I told them over the radio, he’s got to pull in front of me and just trust that I’m going to push there. … It’s good to see he was running up front and battling for stage wins. That’s what we want to see.”