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NASCAR star Denny Hamlin plans to be more selfish in his drive for a fourth Daytona 500 victory

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Don’t expect Denny Hamlin to stay in line during the closing laps of the Daytona 500.

He’s not settling for second. He’s not sacrificing his finish to help a teammate. He’s not counting on anyone else, either.

It’s exactly how he wants it, maybe how he needs it to return to victory lane in NASCAR’s signature event for the fourth time and first since winning back-to-back Daytona 500s in 2019-20.

“I think it’s in my best interest in getting back to basics, and that’s doing what I feel is best to win the race for myself,” said Hamlin, who won the exhibition Clash two weeks ago in Los Angeles. “While having teammates is great and are certainly assets to use in certain situations to win races, I think sometimes it’s those who are the most selfish, that make moves for themselves, are those who win the race.”

Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and one of the best NASCAR drivers in history to not win a Cup Series championship, points to Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s victory a year ago as proof. Stenhouse was driving for a single-car Chevrolet team, had Ford and Toyota drivers teamed up to chase him down, and still managed to secure a career-defining victory.

“You want to help your teammates as much as you can as you’ll need those allies throughout the race and certainly during it,” Hamlin said. “But I feel I need to personally go back to the style I had a few years ago, and we’ll see what the results say.”

Hamlin had no Toyota or Joe Gibbs Racing teammates even remotely close to him when he led the final dozen laps in 2020. He had then-JGR teammate Kyle Busch lurking in his rearview mirror the previous year, but Busch never got close enough to make a move late. Hamlin was out front for 30 of the final 38 laps in 2019.

So Hamlin didn’t get any help in his most recent Daytona 500 victories. He didn’t need any, either.

“In the end, you have to be selfish to win these races and certainly we realize that through results more than anything else,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin, a co-owner with retired NBA superstar Michael Jordan at 23IX Racing since 2021, is trying to become the third driver to win at least four Daytona 500s. NASCAR legend Richard Petty tops the list with seven, three more than Cale Yarborough.

Hamlin is tied with Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon.

“Each win puts you in a different category, right?” Hamlin said. “Some of the numbers that Richard put up or Cale, it’s hard to duplicate in today’s type of racing where there’s more cars on the lead lap and more cars in the front pack.

“I think accomplishments like that certainly puts you in an upper echelon of drivers that were legends in this sport, so it would certainly mean a lot.”

Hamlin is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, superspeedway drivers in the series. He stunned the field to the exhibition Shootout as a rookie in 2006 and has been a contender every race at Daytona since.

He’s repeatedly made it clear he wouldn’t trade any of his Daytona 500 victories for series championships. And even though he has three JGR teammates (Martin Truex Jr., Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell) and two others (Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick) driving for him at 23IX, Hamlin has no plans to take a backseat to them.

His aggressiveness has made him a villain at times in the series, and his competitiveness and confidence are evident in the recently released Netflix documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes in last year’s playoffs.

“I don’t mean this negatively, but I don’t see how he can change his driving style to be more selfish,” said Kyle Larson of Hendrick Motorsports. “We’re all selfish. We all want to win for our teams.

“I think Denny is really good at, like, being dramatic and building our sport up well, bringing some drama to it. I think that’s good.”

The ultimate drama might be seeing Hamlin jockeying teammates and his own drivers over the final laps. And everyone knows what to expect.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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