Denny Hamlin's Intriguing 2004 Daytona 500 Tale: A Test of Loyalty

He particularly recalls the 2004 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. secured victory

by Sead Dedovic
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Denny Hamlin's Intriguing 2004 Daytona 500 Tale: A Test of Loyalty
© Chris Graythen / Getty Images Sport

The Daytona 500 holds numerous memories for Denny Hamlin. In a recent episode of the Actions Detrimental podcast, he reflected on his best moments from the race. Winning the Daytona 500 three times underscores Hamlin's remarkable skill and the importance of the event to him. He particularly recalls the 2004 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. secured victory, marking his first win at the race, six years after his father Earnhardt Sr.'s first and final triumph at Daytona. Hamlin also reminisces about a photo with his current bus driver, John Atkins, finding it interesting that they stood next to each other without exchanging a single word.

I mean, I would say the 2004 Daytona 500, the one that Dale Jr. won. It’s just a great memory, because of how the whole weekend played out. The one where, you saw the picture on social media, where I’m in Victory Lane.

I’m actually standing next to my future bus driver that’s been working with me now for the last ten plus years or so. So if you look just to the right of me, he was — John Atkins, he was the bus driver for DEI at the time. I was standing next to him. I don’t even think I said a word to him in Victory Lane that day, we just happened to be in the same photo.”- Denny Hamlin said, as quoted by on3.com

Hamlin shared the details of his memorable weekend, including some amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes. He recounted how Dale Earnhardt Jr. invited him to Daytona, where he found himself torn between supporting Earnhardt, who had invited him, and Tony Stewart, his future teammate. Hamlin recalled about driving nine-and-a-half hours to Daytona after Earnhardt's invitation and staying at a rental house with Martin Truex Jr. and others, organized by Earnhardt. These are special memories for him, which he will never forget. NASCAR is truly a sport that brings with it strange and unpredictable things.

Reflecting on the weekend, Hamlin recalled signing his developmental deal with Joe Gibbs Racing and feeling torn between his loyalty to Earnhardt and his new affiliation with Gibbs Racing. As the race unfolded, with Earnhardt and Stewart battling for victory, Hamlin found himself behind Earnhardt's pit box, witnessing Earnhardt's decisive move to pass Stewart on the backstretch. 

He then joined the celebrations in Victory Lane, carrying the trophy back to Earnhardt's bus. Overall, it was a memorable experience for Hamlin, as it was his first time at Daytona.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his first Daytona 500 victory: Mix of emotions

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked about his first victory at the Daytona 500 a few years ago in a media interview. Those were exciting moments for him. When you have a chance to win such a race, you certainly feel tension and nervousness. Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembered what he was thinking about in the moments when he was in the battle vs Stewart for victory.

Earnhardt Jr
Earnhardt Jr© Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images Sport
 

"All I had to do was try to figure out how to pass him without anybody helping, which I did not think was going to be possible. But I just started fading back and getting runs and fading back and getting runs. I'm sitting here thinking, 'This is so easy to defend. I don't know why I'm trying this but I've got to try something.'"- Earnhardt Jr. said, as reported by usatoday.com

Earnhardt Jr. explained how he passed Stewart on lap 181 to win the 2004 Daytona 500. He shared that once he took the lead, he felt a mix of emotions and worries with about 20 laps to go. Concerns included the possibility of NASCAR throwing a yellow flag or a debris caution.  When you have the opportunity to secure your first win in such an important race, it's undoubtedly a demanding situation. This is particularly true for an inexperienced driver. However, Dale managed to maintain focus when it mattered most, exerting the effort to persevere until the end and to achieve a victory.

As he circled the track, each lap felt much longer than it actually took, adding to the tension of maintaining his lead. 

Looking at his competition at those moments, many quality NASCAR drivers wanted to spoil Dale's plans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr managed to claim victory in the same race 10 years later. In 2014, Dale was once again the hero of his team. The Daytona 500 is a race that carries a special passion, emotions, and expectations. Every NASCAR driver dreams of winning this race given the prestige and history of this race. It will be interesting to see who can succeed in this goal this year.

Denny Hamlin Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt Jr
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