An exhausted but triumphant Denny Hamlin was in a predictably buoyant mood early Monday morning at the annual Daytona 500 Champion’s Breakfast at Daytona International Speedway.
Hamlin, who was joined at the event by team owner Joe Gibbs and crew chief Mike Wheeler, won Sunday’s 58th running of The Great American Race in epic fashion by passing teammate Matt Kenseth in the final turn and then nipping Martin Truex Jr. at the finish line by .01 seconds — the closest margin of victory in Daytona 500 history.
Speaking with reporters morning at Daytona International Speedway’s Tickets and Tours Building where his race-winning car will be on display for the next year, Hamlin did not deny being sleep-deprived after a long night of basking in the glory that comes with the biggest win of his career.
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This is a huge accomplishment. This will live with you forever, so enjoy the week, and that’s definitely what I’m going to do.
Denny Hamlin, on winning the Daytona 500
"I haven’t been to bed yet, so I’m still living in the past," he said. "Other than that, everything’s been good. It was just an awesome day yesterday from beginning to end. Essentially we set out a plan a few days ago to try to get the owner over here a win and we executed nearly perfectly up until that last corner."
Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the Washington Redskins, also seemed to be dragging a bit.
"The scary thing for me is, we’ve got to race again in six days? I’m going to take about three months off," the 75-year-old team owner joked.
That idea sounded pretty good to Hamlin.
"Can I do that, too, please?" the 35-year-old Chesterfield, Virginia native quipped.
Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Wheeler, was a little more rested than his driver.
"We went and had dinner with about everybody and then met up together at some club. I actually didn’t make it past 2 o’clock," he said. "I was ‘toast’ by 1 a.m. I got a couple hours of sleep. Sorry, Denny, but yeah, 5:30 came early this morning. But I’m happy to be here."
Is Hamlin concerned that Wheeler, his first-year pit boss, just can’t hang?
"Well, he can hang because I took him out on his bachelor party," said Hamlin, whose relationship with Wheeler predates their driver/crew chief marriage. "I know for a fact this guy can hang. I’ve still got the video."
Gibbs, whose only other Daytona 500 win as an owner came in 1993 with Dale Jarrett, insisted that a group from the team celebrate Sunday night by patronizing a local Steak ‘n Shake restaurant.
"When we won that first 500, we didn’t know what to do. We went in the Winner’s Circle and got Gatorade thrown all over us and grabbed the trophy and were out the back," he said. "So we’re driving down the street with the family and everything and (wife) Pat and everybody saw Steak ‘n Shake and pulled in there and spent the next hour with the fans in there. A few of them were … lit up, but it was a typical fan group. We had more fun in the parking lot taking pictures. Then we want to Steak ‘n Shake after the Brickyard last year. It kind of became a tradition.
"So I said last night, ‘We’re going.’ We were down there, we had the trophy and the guys were in there, it was fun because they recognize you and then they all want to take pictures and everything, so we hung out there for a while, had a shake and wanted to make sure we held up our end of the tradition."
Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson joined in on the fun, as well.
"He was making sure nobody got out of hand," Gibbs said.
"I picked up the check," Wilson chimed in.
"All $13 of it?" Hamlin quipped.
"I think it was $9, and he didn’t leave a tip, either," Gibbs added.
Speaking of money, Hamlin had a big payday on Sunday. However, beginning this year, NASCAR no longer reveals drivers’ race purses.
So how much dough did Hamlin leave with on Sunday night?
"Millions," he said with a laugh. "I can’t even count it. The money is stacked so high. I can’t even see over it. No, it’s all Joe’s money, right?"
Gibbs, of course, wasn’t going to let his driver have the last laugh.
"Everybody in this room knows who gets all the money," he said. "I told them my dream is with 500 (employees) to one year make as much money as they do."
Before Hamlin and Gibbs head to the bank, perhaps they’ll both try to catch up on some sleep.
"I don’t know how I’m going to hit the track at Atlanta on Friday, but I’ll figure it out in due time," said Hamlin, who this week will embark on the traditional Daytona 500 champion’s media blitz. "I asked please could we take the plane when we leave here, could we please reroute to like a six-hour flight to New York so I could sleep a little bit?
"The greatest advice I’ve gotten is probably from Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. They all said the same exact thing: The schedule’s kind of a pain, but live in the moment because you never know. This is a huge accomplishment. This will live with you forever, so enjoy the week, and that’s definitely what I’m going to do."