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Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs target Daytona 500 following Sprint Unlimited win

Denny Hamlin is winless 10 career Daytona 500 starts, while Joe Gibbs Racing’s only victory came 23 years ago.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The confetti hadn't even stopped fluttering through the crisp Daytona Beach, Fla., air following Denny Hamlin's win Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway when team owner Joe Gibbs' attention already had turned elsewhere.

Hamlin's victory in the non-points Sprint Unlimited was his third overall and Joe Gibbs Racing's fourth in five years. But while perennially dominant and triumphant in the exhibition opener, JGR's Daytona superiority has failed to extend to the Daytona 500, with the organization's only win in NASCAR's marquee event coming courtesy of Dale Jarrett 23 years ago.

And it's that long drought Gibbs wants to see end.

"I was joking with Denny in the winner's circle. I said, ‘It's the 500, okay, not the [Unlimited]. Try and get us a 500, will you?'" Gibbs said.

Featuring a smaller field, split segments and other gimmicks, the Unlimited is a sharp contrast to the Feb. 21 Daytona 500. Nevertheless, JGR's stellar performance Saturday night establishes the team as the early favorites to capture next Sunday's race.

Throughout the Unlimited, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards preserved spots near the front, with Kenseth often acting as Hamlin's wingman. And even when Team Penske's duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were able to challenge JGR and had shots to usurp Hamlin in the latter stages, neither could complete a decisive pass. Logano backslid on the white flag lap, while Keselowski fought continual overheating issues then got swept into a pair of late accidents.

Primarily factoring in Logano and Keselowski's ineffectiveness was Hamlin's defensive driving that regularly stunted their momentum. Closing gaps by side-drafting and a knack for the choosing the right lane at the opportune moment, Hamlin led the final 16 laps and a race-high 39.

"When guys did get up beside me, I made sure that I put myself in the lane that I felt the most comfortable the person behind me was going to give me the shove," Hamlin said. "A lot of it was Matt most times and then Carl at the end, as well.

It's that ability to manage the draft effectively that earned Hamlin high praise from Dale Earnhardt Jr., the unquestioned master at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR's other restrictor-plate track, calling him a "hell of a plate racer."

The position Hamlin and JGR now occupy as favorites is not unfamiliar, though. When Hamlin took the Unlimited in 2014, it seemed a precursor to an eventual Daytona 500 win. Instead, he finished a close second to Earnhardt. Neither Kyle Busch (2012 winner) nor Kenseth (2015) could go on to backup their exhibition victories in the race that matters the most.

"I've got to tell you, the 500 is just hard to win," Gibbs said. "So many things can happen. You can have really good cars, and we feel like we have had those, but it's a tough race to win. I'd love to get another one."

If anyone within the JGR camp can grasp the elusiveness of the Daytona 500, it's Hamlin, who owns three finishes of fourth or better in the past four races. A frustrating deficiency for a driver with six career Daytona wins.

But often winning a restrictor-plate race is about putting oneself in position to succeed. Which reaffirms Hamlin's belief that if he continues to do so, eventually fate will work in his favor.

"Over the last few years, we've really been in contention a lot," Hamlin said. "You keep knocking on the door, it's going to happen. You can only be so close to the front so many times and not cross the checkered first."

A theory that will again be tested next Sunday, as Hamlin pursues his first Daytona 500 win and attempts to delivers Gibbs just his second.

"Obviously, our cars are very, very fast," Hamlin said. "And if you put them in the right situations, obviously you saw what they can do."