Daytona 500 2014: Runner-up finish leaves Denny Hamlin conflicted

Jared C. Tilton

Denny Hamlin wasn’t sure how he should feel after nearly winning the Daytona 500.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the immediate aftermath Denny Hamlin didn't know whether he should be elated or angry with his hard-fought runner-up finish in the Daytona 500.

"I'm so 50-50 on whether I'm pissed off or I'm happy, I just don't know,'' Hamlin said at Daytona International Speedway.

A case could be made for either position.

There were plenty of reasons for Hamlin to be happy. In a race featuring four cautions with six or more drivers involved, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota had persevered with a rather unscathed car.

He was one of the lucky ones, especially when you consider Hamlin for much of the night operated without communication with his spotter. On a track like Daytona with speeds eclipsing 200 mph where split-second decisions can mean the difference between winning and wrecking, not having a spotter is recipe for disaster.

What caused the radio failure is unknown. But it's easy to deduce that the heavy rain which caused a six-hour rain delay likely created an electrical short.

The frustration Hamlin felt was also explainable.

Having won the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel qualifying race, Hamlin entered Sunday full of confidence. It was a feeling like he had never experienced previously at Daytona. This only manifested as Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch dominated the opening stages.

But something changed after the storm clouds rolled in on Lap 38 and the track cooled significantly. Following the red flag Hamlin led just once more.

"Our cars, I don't know, we just weren't as good as the week progressed," he said. "Maybe we were the same, but I thought the competition got a little bit better. But definitely we weren't able to pass as easily as we were earlier in the week for whatever reason."

Yet there was Hamlin in the final laps poised to claim his first Daytona 500 title, and with it become the first driver to make a clean sweep of Speedweeks. It was all right there as the field sat bunched together on a restart with two laps to go.

But a slower than usual restart, which Hamlin attributed to not having a spotter, allowed race-leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get the jump he needed to maintain his advantage. A lead he wouldn't relinquish.

"It's hard to win a superspeedway race when you don't know when runs are coming, when you have to time your passes and especially, when you're trying to guard against causing a wreck, knowing you got radio silence," Hamlin said. "It was tough and disappointing because I definitely could have used my spotter there at the end for the green-white-checkered to possibly time a run on (Earnhardt)."

Hamlin, instead, had to settle for second and with it, the confliction of being good but not good enough.

"Honestly, me not being able to drive to my ability because I was being conservative, trying to spot for myself, that's not a way to race," Hamlin said. "I'm at least happy we finished the race and didn't get in big trouble."

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