Denny Hamlin, who looks like a favorite for the Daytona 500, said his biggest challenge will be holding back for the first 400 miles.
“Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you’re still on top and still the best, right on Lap 1,” he said. “I think that will be my challenge within myself, keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.”
Hamlin won the exhibition race last weekend and the second qualifying race Thursday. He also won the season finale last year at Homestead. So he comes into the new season on a high after sitting out part of 2013 with a broken back.
“Last year was so hard on us,” car owner Joe Gibbs said. “I got to tell you, Homestead was a huge deal for us. That was a big win. I think it gave everybody their confidence going into the off-season. Denny has worked extremely hard. I think we were all hungry when the year started. That certainly helps.”
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“Starving,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin will start fourth on Sunday, joining Gibbs teammate Matt Kenseth on the second row.
Toyota’s strength as a manufacturer is evident with Hamlin and Kenseth near the front.
That’s not usually the case in qualifying for Toyota, Ford driver Greg Biffle said.
“They’ve got something in race trim that they don’t have in qualifying trim,” he said. “In qualifying, they’re not there. when it comes to dropping the rag and we’re in race trim, they’ve got a little something that they’re trimming their car out differently than we are. Or they have a little something that makes their car a little faster, it looks like.”
Toyota has never won a Daytona 500. Kenseth won it in 2012, his last year in a Ford.
Martin Truex Jr., who qualified for the front row but has to start at the back of the field because he is using his backup car, ran 13 laps in practice Saturday, his first in the car that replaces the car torn up in Thursday’s crash.
“I was definitely relieved to get some time in the car,” he said. “Honestly, I am really excited about this race car. Without a shadow of a doubt, this car is better than the one we ran the other night in the qualifying race. The Furniture Row guys did another good job. I even hate to call this car a backup because of how good it felt.”
Seven rookies are in the field for the Daytona 500, led by pole-sitter Austin Dillon.
He is joined by Kyle Larson, who qualified 16th and Cole Whitt (23rd), Alex Bowman (29th), Michael Annett (36th), Justin Allgaier (40th) and Parker Kligerman (41st).
“It’s huge,” Bowman said. “I mean, I got the call to come drive a Cup car. I was really excited about that. To make the Daytona 500, it’s huge. It’s something I’ve watched as a kid every year. It just means a lot to me and my family.”
Larson hopes he has the trust of the veterans so they will use him as a draft partner if they need to. But it remains to be seen, the rookie said.
“I think it’s tough for any veteran to trust a rookie like me, especially on a super speedway,” he said. “I saw it a little bit [in the duels] where people would bail on me, which I understand. You have to try and be as smooth as you can and earn their trust.”
Larson said the qualifying race was educational.
“I felt like I kept it in a straight line most of the time,” he said. “There was once where I got a little squirrely, but for the most part, I haven’t had any run-ins with any of the veterans yet.”
JPM at Brickyard
Chip Ganassi said he would consider using Juan Pablo Montoya, his former Sprint Cup driver, for the Brickyard 400 this summer, since Montoya expressed interest.
“I would never say never,” the car owner said. “ I would never say no to that. I think he is talking about Penske, though. They are certainly capable of doing that. He says he is enjoying it over there.”
Montoya is driving in the IndyCar Series this year for Roger Penske.