Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Denny Hamlin is on a mission this week at Daytona International Speedway.
Hamlin kicked off Speedweeks at Daytona by winning the Sprint Unlimited preseason event and then scored the victory in second race of the Budweiser Duel. Now he's striving to win Sunday's Daytona 500 -- the most prestigious stock car race of the season.
How hungry is Hamlin for a victory in the Daytona 500?
"Starving," he said.
Hamlin concluded the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season by winning at Homestead (Nov. 17), and he's been undefeated since then.
A victory in the Daytona 500 will be a much tougher task for Hamlin, compared to the Unlimited, which was 187.5 miles in length, and the Duel, a distance of 150 miles.
"I think the biggest challenge for myself is keeping the reins back only for 400 miles, 450 miles," Hamlin said. "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 one."
If Hamlin wins the Daytona 500 or any other race during the 26-race regular season, it would all but guarantee him a berth in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Three weeks ago, NASCAR revealed sweeping changes to the Chase, expanding the field of drivers/teams from 12 to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to determine the Sprint Cup champion. The top-15 (points-eligible) drivers with the most wins after the regular season concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond will be eligible for the playoffs.
Last year, Hamlin failed to make the Chase for the first time in his eight- year Sprint Cup career. He finished 23rd in points. Hamlin missed four races early in the season after he suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during an accident in the March 24 event in Fontana, Calif.
Hamlin's track time has been limited since his win in the Duel. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota made 22 laps during Friday's practice for the Daytona 500. He skipped Saturday's final practice.
"I'm very pleased. Everything seems to be good," Hamlin said. "At this point now, it's up to the team to go through that checklist and make sure we've got our t's crossed and i's dotted."
No driver has ever won the preseason event, the Daytona 500 qualifier and the 500-mile race in the same week. Kevin Harvick was poised to do it last year, winning the Unlimited and the Duel, but Harvick finished 42nd in the Daytona 500 after being involved in an accident in the early going.
Hamlin and his JGR teammate, Matt Kenseth, secured the second row for the Daytona 500 by virtue of their wins in the Duel. Austin Dillon, a rookie this year, and Martin Truex Jr. had already claimed the front row since they were the top-two finishers in last Sunday's time trials. Dillon won the pole with a lap at 196.019 mph.
Team owner Joe Gibbs is hoping to end a 21-year winless drought in the Daytona 500. Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as Head Coach of the Washington Redskins, entered Sprint Cup competition in 1992 with driver Dale Jarrett. One year later, Jarrett won the Daytona 500 to give Gibbs his first victory in NASCAR's top racing circuit.
"We've come with great cars over the years," Gibbs said. "It shows you what a tough race this is, the 500. We won once. Probably one of the greatest sporting experiences I've ever had. I was thrilled...This race is extremely hard to win. That probably says it best, over 22 years, that's a bunch."
Hamlin will compete in the Daytona 500 for the ninth time. His best finish in this race is fourth, which came in 2012. He finished 14th last year.
Kenseth is a two-time Daytona 500 winner. His 2009 and '12 victories came when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing. Kenseth moved over to JGR for the 2013 season. He led the most laps in last year's Daytona 500 with 86 but finished 37th after he suffered engine failure with 50 laps to go.
Kyle Busch, who drives the No. 18 Toyota for JGR, will start 37th in the Daytona 500 after finishing 20th in the first Duel event.
Toyota has yet to win the Daytona 500.
Nine drivers will have to start this race from the rear of the field due to either backup cars or engine changes. Truex lost his second starting spot after wrecking his primary car during the final lap of the second Duel race.
With Truex moving to the back, Kenseth will start second and Hamlin third.
Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Michael Waltrip, Clint Bowyer and David Ragan also wrecked their cars during the second Duel. Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Bobby Labonte suffered engine failure during practice last week.
This is the third car for Johnson during Speedweeks. He crashed his first vehicle in the Sprint Unlimited.
"We've been very impressed and happy with the speed this third car has had," Johnson said. "But it's not a situation we wanted to be in, by any means."
Johnson will attempt to win a third consecutive Sprint Cup points-paying race at Daytona. He won the Daytona 500 one year ago and then followed up with a victory in the 400-mile race here in July.
Cale Yarborough is the only driver who has won three Cup points-paying races in a row at Daytona. Yarborough's victories came in the 1967 and '68 Firecracker 400s and the '68 Daytona 500.
Last year, Johnson became the first driver to score a season-sweep at Daytona since Bobby Allison in 1982. Johnson went on to win his sixth Sprint Cup championship, putting him one title away from tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the record.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Feb. 23. Race: Daytona 500. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile tri-oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 200. Miles: 500. 2013 Winner:: Jimmie Johnson. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.