Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin got his 2016 off to a winning start by claiming victory in the first race of the year, the exhibition Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona International Speedway under the floodlights on Saturday night.
"We win as a team and this was a Joe Gibbs Racing win," said Hamlin, who becomes the fifth driver in series history to win three or more Sprint Unlimited races (2006, 2014 and 2016) joining Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. "It's great to open up with a win."
Only eight of the 25 cars eligible for this non-championship event (as previous event winners, 2016 Chase contenders or full-time drivers who had won pole position in the previous 12 months) made it all the way to the chequered flag in a race dominated by several accidents. That included a clash for Hamlin himself with Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap 12 which left Hamlin with light damage to the #11 for the rest of the race.
The first of three big accidents came on lap 23 when Brian Vickers - standing in for the injured Tony Stewart in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing car - suffered a right-rear tyre failure that instigated a wreck which caught up his team mates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch along with Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and AJ Allmendinger.
"I cut a right rear tyre," Vickers said after being evaluated and cleared by the infield care center after hitting the infield SAFER barrier. "It's unfortunate. I don't know how I cut the tyre. I had a little contact. Everyone was racing hard. It's the Sprint Unlimited, right? That's what it's all about. The #18 and I got together early on, going four-wide. Had a little rub but it went away so we thought everything was fine.
"The #2 and I got together a little bit right there on the front stretch going into 1. Maybe that was it. I just don't know. It was a cut of some kind. It's just unfortunate."
Jimmie Johnson had started on pole after a random pre-race draw but spun out on the backstretch on lap 43 after contact with Casey Mears and then ripping up the front of the #48 Chevy as he ran through the bus stop chicane used in the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race.
After that the race ran relatively incident free until three laps until the scheduled finish, at which point a clash between long-time frontrunners Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards ended up eliminating reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch.
The race resumed under NASCAR's new overtime rules, which require the leader to reach a designated 'overtime line' on the backstretch under green on the restart lap before the race is official. However, once the leaders had passed that line there was a six-car wreck in turn 1 triggered by Hamlin's team mate Matt Kenseth which forced the race to finish under caution.
When the yellow flags came out, Hamlin - having led for 39 laps - was out in front and was followed across the finish line by Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Kyle Larson, Casey Mears and Stenhouse Jr.
"I'm so happy for [new crew chief] Mike Wheeler to start one-for-one with a good win here at Daytona," said Hamlin on victory lane. "Thank our partners – this win first of all couldn't be possible without my teammates. Matt sacrificed so much pushing me at the right time and Carl at the end as well. Total team effort, just like Kyle's championship."
Although the race doesn't award any Sprint Cup Series championship points, it's nonetheless a good way to shake out the cobwebs before qualifying on Sunday for the official season opener, the Daytona 500.
See full race results for the Sprint Unlimited