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Denny Hamlin was happy to see his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell break through last week in Daytona.
Bell won his first Cup Series race in 38 tries making him the second consecutive first-time winner to open the 2021 season.
“It’s great for our organization,” Hamlin said last week after finishing 11th on the Daytona road course. “The more competitive cars that we can have in the Toyota stable, the more information that we can share, and it will be good information. It’s very, very difficult, as we know, in our sport to have four cars that are all very good and competitive. Certainly, I believe that we can have that this year.
“It’s already starting off really well.”
While Bell now knows what victory tastes like in the Cup Series, it’s old hat for Hamlin at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin, who has the pole position heading into Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400, has a chance to win his fourth race on the South Florida track, which would give him the most Cup Series victories in the track’s history.
The race on the 1.5-mile track begins at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised on Fox. After hosting 1,000 military personnel and family members last year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s race will have a 20 percent capacity crowd.
Hamlin won last year’s race at Homestead after leading for 137 laps to secure his third career win at the track (2009, 2013, 2020). With a victory on Sunday, Hamlin would surpass Greg Biffle (2004, 2005, 2006) and Tony Stewart (1999, 2000, 2011) for the track record.
Hamlin is the current points leader and 12 points ahead of Joey Logano in second and 21 points ahead of Kevin Harvick. Logano will start second on Sunday followed by Bell and Harvick.
Logano won at Homestead in 2018, clinching the Cup Series championship that season.
Kyle Busch, another of Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, is vying for his third win at Homestead.
Hamlin has posted an average place finish of 9.9 in 16 career starts at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which ranks him third among active drivers behind Harvick (7.4 in 20 starts) and Chase Elliott (8.0 in five starts). Hamlin hasn’t started outside the top five at Homestead in his No. 11 Toyota car since 2014.
Only eight Cup Series races will have practice and qualifying this season due to COVID-19 protocols. The Dixie Vodka 400 wasn’t one of them. Hamlin was awarded the pole based on a metrics formula that factors in a driver’s most recent finish, fastest lap at their last race, and the car owner’s previous finish and team owner points.
“I think it will be more status quo on where we were last year,” Hamlin told NASCAR.com this week. “That doesn’t mean me and Kevin, since it’s a mile-and-a-half, that we are going to dominate. With the mid-tier teams, this is where the resources that they don’t have will come into factor a little bit more.”
Even if it’s not Hamlin’s turn to celebrate, history could still be made.
NASCAR hasn’t seen three consecutive first-time winners to open a Cup Series season since its inaugural year in 1949.
Of the 38 drivers entered in the race, 16 have yet to win a Cup Series race.
Ryan Preece, who will start eighth, is among the group and will start in the top 10 in back-to-back races for the first time in his career.
Tyler Reddick, a two-time Xfinity Series race winner on the Homestead track, could be an under-the-radar contender to win his first. Kyle Larson has posted three top-5 finishes at Homestead in seven starts.
McDowell, this year’s Daytona 500 winner, qualified in the top 10 for a second consecutive race for the first time since 2019.
Bubba Wallace, driving for Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing, became the first Black driver to lead a lap in the Daytona 500 two weeks ago. Wallace will start 19th on Sunday and has nine top-10 finishes.
Anthony Alfredo, who will start 27th, is the highest-qualifying rookie.
“I don’t think I would call the 20 car [Bell] mid-tier, and I don’t think I would call the 34 [McDowell] a shock, because we were at a superspeedway,” Hamlin told NASCAR.com. “I think the winners list is like, ‘Oh wow, where [are] our superstars?’ But we are about to get into a chunk of the season where you are going to start to see some of your normal winners in the bracket.”