Denny Hamlin was picked by many as one of the favorites heading into Sunday's Daytona 500. And rightfully so, considering he had won everything leading into the Great American Race, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver found himself living up to the hype, vying for the victory coming to the checkered flag in NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl. A multi-car accident in turn four halted any chance of Hamlin making a last-second maneuver around winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and putting an exclamation point to a virtually flawless Speedweeks.
What may have been more impressive about Hamlin's runner-up finish at Daytona International Speedway -- a personal best in the Daytona 500 -- was his ability to guide his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry, without assistance from his team or spotter. The 23-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner battled radio problems throughout the 200-mile race, and after nearly a six-and-a-half-hour rain delay Sunday afternoon the radio problem intensified, with Hamlin losing communication for much of the race's final 162 laps, including complete silence during the event's final 15 circuits.
"Our radios got wet after the rain, so I didn't perform as good as I could have, because I was trying to spot myself at the end of the race," said Hamlin. "It's hard to win a superspeedway race when you don't know when runs are coming and when you've got to time your passes and everything, especially when you're just trying to guard against just causing a wreck, knowing that you have radio silence.
"It was tough and disappointing, because I definitely could have used my spotter there at the end for that green-white-checker to possibly time a run on the 88 (Earnhardt Jr.). I'm at least happy we finished the race and didn't get in big trouble."
Despite winning the Sprint Unlimited on Feb. 15 and the Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Feb. 20, Hamlin was somewhat somber with his runner-up performance Sunday night.
"There's a lot to be disappointed about, but there's a lot to be happy about," he said. "I feel good. It was a solid run for us. We didn't have the speed that we had before the rain came. I thought -- the Duels and the Unlimited -- I felt like our car didn't have quite the speed. But, for some reason, whether guys picked up their intensity, it was tougher to pass out there. I'm so 50-50 on whether I'm pissed off or I'm happy. I just don't know."
Even with the defeat though, Hamlin, who missed four races last season due to an L1 compression fracture in his back following the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. last March, is off to a hot start in 2014 and will head to Phoenix International Raceway this upcoming weekend with the most momentum he's had in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition since 2012.
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