It is often said that restrictor plate races aren’t so much about driver ability as much as they are an engineers’ race. The team with the fastest car has the most likely chance of winning, so long as the driver holds the wheel straight and doesn’t lose the draft.
Easier said than done, but that’s a much shorter checklist than that of other racetracks. The term “crapshoot” is thrown around when Talladega or Daytona comes around on the schedule, and the Talladega Chase race is one of the most feared events of the season from the competitors’ standpoint.
However, Denny Hamlin – the race winner from last Saturday Night’s Sprint Unlimited – doesn’t completely agree with that statement.
“I mean, if it’s a crap shoot, Dale Jr. is the luckiest guy in Vegas, because he finds a way to stay up front and win these races on a consistent basis.”
Indeed, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is arguably the most adept restrictor plate driver on the circuit right now and has to rank highly on the all-time list. He has 10 points-earning race wins between Daytona and Talladega and has an average finish inside the top 15 at both tracks. It is no small task considering how both tracks are known for wrecks that are so large that they have their own name: “The Big One.” Earnhardt knows how to wheel his way around these behemoth-like racetrack and knows a good restrictor-plate driver when he sees one.
And he thinks Hamlin is one of them.
Congrats to @dennyhamlin. He's a hell of a plate racer.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) February 14, 2016
Hamlin won his third career Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night. Though Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing would like to win the Daytona 500 – a feat that the team hasn’t achieved since 1993 – Hamlin’s multiple victories at Daytona demonstrates a restrictor plate racing prowess that even he admits he didn’t previously possess.
“I learned a lot about four or five years ago, and ever since then, I’ve just had a lot of success on these racetracks,” said Hamlin post-race. “I think I’ve gotten better at learning and paying attention to smaller details at these racetracks that matter in the long run. So that’s probably where it turned for me is around that 2010, ’12, whatever year, that you can see our speedway results have been really, really good. And through all of that, I’ve had really good teammates that win a lot, as well, on these types of racetracks, and you just watch them, and you put all those pieces together, and hopefully you make yourself better.”
Hamlin may not be giving himself quite enough credit. The first of those three Sprint Unlimited victories came in his rookie season in 2006 and he has one victory at Talladega Superspeedway. Still, if that’s the case, why only one points-paying restrictor plate race win as opposed to three Sprint Unlimited victories? What is so special about this race?
“Obviously it’s short enough for my attention span. That’s all I can think of,” Hamlin said.
Regardless, one has to think that it’s a matter of “when”, not “if” Joe Gibbs Racing wins the Daytona 500. Hamlin thinks he can be the one to pull it off – maybe this year.
“We have come so close, and really over the last few years, we got a bunch of top 5s in the 500, and really for the first probably six years of my career, the way I drove speedway races, I probably never gave us a shot to win a 500, but it’s just over the last few years we’ve really been in contention a lot, and it’s just you keep knocking on the door, it’s going to happen,” said Hamlin. “You can only be so close to the front so many times and not cross the checkered first.”
There are 39 other competitors who will have something to say about that. But over the course of his career, Hamlin has certainly given plenty of reasons to consider the No. 11 a threat at Daytona and Talladega in the very new future.