Denny Hamlin eyes Daytona sweep

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Maybe the 13th time is a charm.

Twelve times drivers have come to the brink of sweeping all their Sprint Cup races during Speedweeks. Twelve times they have fallen short in the Daytona 500 itself.

Sunday, Denny Hamlin is the 13th driver with a shot to do what Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, Ken Schrader, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick couldn't -- reach the 3-for-3 mark here that has sounded so simple every time it has come up but has been so elusive.

"Once that snowball starts to roll, it's hard to stop it," Hamlin said hopefully after winning his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday night to go with a win in the Sprint Unlimited bonus race last Saturday night.

No, it's not that hard to stop the snowball. Four times it disintegrated around Earnhardt Sr. alone -- in 1986, '91, '93 and '95. Twice it happened to his son, in 2003 and '08.

Now, for Hamlin, the hardest part is to not show off too soon.

"The biggest challenge for myself is keeping the reins back for 400 miles, or 450 miles," he said. His first two wins were relative sprints, and "this is going to be a much longer race."

But, "Obviously, when you go out here and 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."

Since 1988, when restrictor plates were mandated here, the 500 has amounted largely to some hybrid of a roulette wheel and a kaleidoscope -- rife with the luck of the aerodynamic pushes and pulls of the draft -- while drivers are largely passengers dependent on the whims of those around them.

But maybe, just maybe, Hamlin has an edge this time. He has a proven drafting partner and two-time Daytona 500 winner in Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth won the other 150-miler Thursday night, setting up the JGR pair as the nearest thing to favorites you could peg here at Casino de Daytona.

With taller spoilers knocking bigger holes in the air under the new aerodynamic rules, it appears that drivers can race when they want to. The question is when they'll want to.

They didn't bother Thursday night until the final laps of the 150-milers, and before that, they were mostly content to line up single file and merely log laps.

The thing was, either riding or scrambling, neither Kenseth nor Hamlin had a lot of trouble staying up front in their respective races.

And they handled it in different ways -- Kenseth via the long-preferred high lane in the drafting lines and Hamlin via the iffier inside lane.

"Either way, we still came out on top," Hamlin said.

While those two showed winning hands coming into the 500, others didn't show much at all.

Rookie Austin Dillon, driving the fabled No. 3 at Cup level for the first time since Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, will start on the pole, and what he will do early is a murky matter indeed.

Dillon ran up front for a little while in his qualifying race and then fell back in the pack and cruised the rest of the way without showing anything else.

Whereas Earnhardt rarely, if ever, concealed the might of the 3 -- even in qualifying races -- Dillon decided "alright, now it's time to go back there and play the patient game," he said.

Martin Truex Jr., driving for the underdog, one-car Furniture Row team, will start alongside Dillon.

Kenseth and Hamlin will start on the second row -- second and third, respectively.

Several major names will start toward the back of the 43-car field due to engine changes, wrecks, or, in the case of Harvick, technical infractions.

Defending 500 champion and six-time Cup titlist Jimmie Johnson will start 32nd after running out of gas and detonating a multicar pileup at the end of the second qualifying race. Brad Keselowski will start 33rd, Joey Logano 35th, Kyle Busch 37th and Harvick 38th.

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