Denny Hamlin stuck to the Toyota master plan on Sunday in the Daytona 500 and his victory in the Great American Race was actually an unintended consequence of his selfless decision to adhere to a strategy made the night before.
Chris Lambert is the spotter for Hamlin and the no. 11 Sprint Cup Series team and says he never told his driver to move up as to receive the push from Kevin Harvick that ultimately won them the race. The night before the 500, Hamlin and each of the Gibbs affiliated drivers were a part of a group text that outlined their strategy to send one of them to Victory Lane.
Lambert says the Gibbs drivers realized how fast they were together in a line during practice and knew their combined speed would continually get them to the front of the field during the race itself. That’s exactly how the 500 played out on Sunday, and their intended strategy was to stay in a line on the bottom until one lap to go.
With a steady shove from Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick looked to break up the Toyota party with a massive run on the high side and Hamlin made the decision to move up only to block the progress of the Chevy-Ford duo. Lambert said the decision to block for Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch ultimately won him the race.
“I never told him to pull up to get a push from Harvick,” Lambert said. “We pulled up at the start-finish line at the white, just to stop the progress of the outside line,” Lambert told Popular Speed in the garage after the race. “But they got such a head of steam coming to Turn 1 that the only way to block it was to pull out of line and try to back that line up. And once we did, it just shot us forward from fourth to side-by-side with second-place Truex.
“If you watch the replay, (Logano) was wiggling (Harvick) all the way down the frontstretch. He was all over them. So the only thing we could have hoped to do was hope they didn’t split us or side-draft them.”
After the race, Hamlin said he was okay with securing the victory for Toyota — it’s first in the Daytona 500. But he knew that Harvick was going to carry that momentum to the lead, so he jumped purely with the intent of stalling their speed.
“I saw (Harvick) coming,” Hamlin said. “I told myself, if I didn’t make a run, he was going to make a run just like I did. I went up there to block and he hit me so hard it shot me three cars forward. I had to do something with that run.”
Lambert said the run his driver got was more the result of Logano pushing Harvick than the 2014 champion alone.
“Joey is one heck of a pusher,” Lambert said. “The Penske cars for years have been great at pushing. He was locked onto (Harvick) and pushing and the only call we had was to block and we were shot so far ahead that (Kenseth) couldn’t block us in time.”
Hamlin used the burst of speed to fly under Kenseth, who made slight contact with his teammate before bouncing into the wall and out of contention, and then beat Truex in the closest finish in Daytona 400 history – 0.010 of a second.
Lambert is a former short track crew member and spotter out of Kannapolis, North Carolina and grew up a Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan Remembering how much adversity Earnhardt faced before winning the 500 himself made him feel extra emotional.
He said his knees were weak during the final lap and that it was easily the most notable professional moment of his career.
“Being a Senior fan and knowing how hard he worked at it before he was able to win here, there’s a definitely a skill to it,” Lambert said of restrictor plate racing. “It’s like Denny said earlier this week, Dale Junior isn’t that lucky, he’s good here. We learned and have gotten better at it too. So any time I feel like I can give Denny information that helps him or tells him what to do or whatever it was, it’s huge. I just never thought I would ever be able to say that I’m a Daytona 500 champion.”
Lambert says plate racing is where spotters feel the most involved with their drivers, due to the close proximity of the cars and the immediacy of all the action. While he doesn’t want to take anything away from Hamlin or crew chief Mike Wheeler, he also feels an extra degree of involvement with the victory since it was at Daytona.
“This is where we feel like we have our hands on the car a lot more than anywhere else,” Lambert said. “I’ll never tell Denny how to drive it because I’ve never driven a race car — that’s not my thing. But look, I see what other people do and I’m going to relay that info. We’re so involved here and we have to paint the picture, so to say, of what line has the energy and who is tight and who is doing the most.
“Denny has told me he never looks out the mirror here. He takes my word as the gospel and he makes his mind up from that and what he sees out the front. So I feel like I have my hands on the car a lot more and that makes it so much more special.”
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