DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — “Any questions?’’ Denny Hamlin radioed to his crew as they celebrated his dominant showing in last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, a three-segment, 75-lap exhibition race that fired the ignition on Speedweeks 2014 at Daytona International Speedway.
“Any questions?’’ Hamlin asked again, a defiant tone in his voice as he steered his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on a victory lap around Daytona’s high-banked, 2½-mile tri-oval.
Hamlin’s victory in the non-points Sprint Unlimited punctuated a day of dominance for the 33-year-old driver from Chesterfield, Va., whose fast lap in practice earned him the pole position.
He won the first 30-lap segment and the second 25-lap segment. Hamlin then wrested the lead from Brad Keselowski with two laps to go in the final 20-lap shootout to win the event for the second time in his career.
Hamlin followed that up with a victory in the second 150-mile qualifying heat of the Budweiser Duel Thursday night, giving him wins in his last three starts dating to the 2013 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
It also was his fourth career restrictor-plate victory at Daytona, and second this week.
Hamlin is on such a hot streak, he even won the NASCAR golf tournament Thursday before the Duel. “So I’m really undefeated right now,’’ he said.
It was precisely the kind of start Hamlin needed to put a turbulent 2013 in his rearview mirror.
He missed qualifying for The Chase for the Sprint Cup after making the previous five. He suffered a compression fracture in his back following an accident in the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. It sidelined Hamlin for four races, which dropped him from 10th to 31st in the points. He finished 23d after winning at Homestead.
“Obviously when you win anything, it helps a lot of things,’’ Hamlin said. “It really helps with team morale. [When] these guys work as hard as they can no matter what, you got your chest pumped out a little bit, you got your head up. It gives you a little bit more confidence, everyone.’’
Given all the physical challenges he had to overcome last season, Hamlin seemed in dire need of a morale boost as well.
“Homestead kind of came out of the blue, especially how our year went,’’ said Hamlin, who celebrated the victory while Jimmie Johnson celebrated his sixth Sprint Cup championship. “I realized after the win in Homestead how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel.
“When I feel comfortable in the car, especially in long runs and everything, you know, I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner.’’
The question Hamlin now faces, though, is whether he’s comfortable enough to be a series champion.
He came close in 2010 when he finished a career-best second in points, recorded a season-high eight wins, and took a 15-point lead into the finale at Homestead only to squander it and watch Johnson win his fifth consecutive title.
“Denny is on a mission, man,’’ said Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. “I think he lost too much time last year sitting on the sidelines, so he’s got some wins to make up for . . . He’s on fire right now.
“He’s good. He’s fast. He’s ready,’’ Busch added. “I think he keeps saying he feels good. But, yeah, I think JGR, as a whole, we were fast here last year. Denny has really shown some speed and some smarts, I guess.’’
But is Hamlin capable of being better than he was before his accident? Better than he was in November after sending a message with his win in the 2013 finale?
“Physically, I feel like I can be better than I was before,’’ he said. “I feel like at the start of the season, I feel as good physically in the car over the course of long runs, better than I have for I can’t even remember, probably rookie season maybe.
“But the realist in me knows this is superspeedway racing, it is different,’’ Hamlin added. “Once we get to the other tracks, three, four races down into the schedule, I’ll know where we stand as far as are we fully back to ourselves.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.