Photos: Courtesy Of NASCAR
Denny Hamlin won his first Daytona 500 in splendid style with a daring, fearless and forceful pass at the right time on the final lap to edge out Martin Truex, Jr. at the finish line by one-hundredth of a second (.010) in the closest finish in the 500’s 58-year history.
The entire race came down to that final lap. Hamlin was given a solid push from his fourth position by Kevin Harvick going into turn three boosting his Joe Gibbs Racing Fed-Ex Toyota towards the front with a huge amount of momentum. Leader, Matt Kenseth saw what was building behind and went high to block going into turn four. Hamlin ducked to the inside and the turbulence from the exchange caused Kenseth to become loose and was barely able to hold on sending Hamlin to the front to battle Truex.
Quickly Hamlin moved up and found himself alongside of Truex in a drag race to the finish. He used a side-draft tactic to pull even and eventually far enough ahead in a photo finish that had the sold-out crowd of over 100,000 on their feet.
The occasion denotes Hamlin’s first trip to Daytona’s victory lane in the powerful Toyota. For JGR, it was their second 500 win and first since Dale Jarrett gave ‘The Coach’, the recipient of three Vince Lombardi’s NFL Super Bowl trophies, his first NASCAR victory in 1993.
The commotion up front was hectic for Hamlin in his bid for the lead; he reacted on true racing instinct, avoiding hitting Kenseth first and then racing Truex to the line, having no memory of how he got there.
“I don’t remember it—honestly,” said a relieved Hamlin on his 27th Sprint Cup win. “I just remember pulling up in front of the 4 (Harvick) and him giving me a push and not letting off and ultimately that was the push to the victory for us. I know we got to the outside of the 18 (Kyle Busch), the 78 (Truex). Then the 20 (Kenseth) came up to block high, and I saw that the middle was going to be the only way I could get around both of them.
“We cleared the 20 and drag-raced with the 78. This is a total team effort from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, Martin Truex and those guys – all of our cars up front at the end. I said with two (laps) to go that we have to get the team victory no matter what it takes. I essentially was trying to go up there and block the 4 to keep him from getting to those guys, but he gave me such a strong push I just went with it and we ended up with a victory.”
The win also gives Hamlin automatic entry into this year-end’s Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship that starts in September in Chicago.
Truex, who thought that finally a Daytona 500 win was in the cards, fell just shy of Hamlin’s narrow margin, driving that last lap with his mirror as much as his throttle. Up until the last two feet, Truex thought he had the race won.
“Denny cut inside (of Kenseth), making it three wide,” said Truex, whose team switched from Chevrolet to Toyota this year. “He just side-drafted me off of Turn 4 all the way to the line. I felt like I had enough momentum to keep him behind me. I did all the way up until that last couple of feet.
“He just shot out that last couple inches on me right before the line. Wish I would have crowded him up the track a little bit more late down the frontstretch. Those are split second decisions. He came out on the right end of it today.
“It’s hard to make those decisions. I felt like I had the momentum, and I did till those last couple of feet. So, you know, live and learn. I think if I get in that position again, I’ll do it a little bit differently. First time I’ve ever been in that spot. I think we’ll have a lot more opportunities to win races this year with race cars like that. I’m looking forward to getting better at taking advantage of them.”
Toyota dominated the 200-lap race leading for 156 laps with Hamlin leading the pack for 95 circuits. The remaining finishing order was Kyle Busch in third, Harvick, fourth and completing the top five was Carl Edwards giving Toyota a near sweep of four of the top five spots.
The new aero package for the race seemed to affect the balance of the Chevrolets especially in tight formations. Race favorite, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s day came to an end on lap 170 just as he was mounting a charge to the front. Coming off turn four his No. 88 swapped ends in tight traffic sending him into infield wall flattening the nose of his car finishing 36th.
Kenseth, the white flag point man, could see in his mirror that Hamlin was coming on strong in the outside line decided to go high in an attempt to block finding himself slipping too high giving Hamlin the opening that he needed to pass. The change of airflow sent his car whipping side-to-side incredibly steering clear of all danger allowing the two-time Daytona 500 winner to finish 14th as the field filed by.
With all eyes on 20-year old pole-sitter Chase Elliott leading up to Sunday, the next generation driver led the first three laps of the Daytona 500 before falling back in the field. Soon he developed some handling problems off turn four causing him to lose control on lap 19 spinning wildly through a tight group of cars towards the infield grass. The result was major front-end damage relegating the Georgia driver to 37th despite making repairs and returning to the race 40 laps down.
The Daytona 500 winning speed was 157.549 mph despite six caution flags for 31 laps slowing down the race pace. There were 20 lead changes among 15 drivers.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads north to Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend for the QuikTrip Folds of Honor 500 on Sunday, February 28 airing on FOX network at 1:00 p.m. EST.