Denny Hamlin was just one hundredths of a second ahead of Martin Truex Jr. as the pair crossed the finish line at Daytona International Speedway in a thrilling finish to this year's Daytona 500. Hamlin also won last week's Sprint Unlimited race, making him only the sixth driver to sweep the opening two events and the first since Dale Jarrett managed it in 2000.
"This is the best. I mean, it's just the best. It's the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 is the pinnacle of our sport and I'm just proud to be here," said Hamlin in victory lane.
It took a photo finish to confirm that Hamlin was indeed the victor, his first-ever win in the Daytona 500 and the first for team owner Joe Gibbs since 1993. It's the first time that Toyota has been the winning manufacturer of the opening NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season, and was the closest-ever margin of victory in the event's 58 years of running.
As a team Joe Gibbs Racing had been dominant for much of the race, with Hamlin and his team mates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch taking up a group booking at the front on the field early in the day and then holding on to it for much of the 200-lap race distance at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Hamlin himself led for almost half the entire race with 95 laps out in front, while Kenseth led for another 40 and Busch adding a further 19 for a team total of 154 laps in charge.
However Hamlin had been put on the back foot when he was lost position during the final round of pit stops, after he locked up coming down pit lane which meant he needed a full set of four tyres as others took only two which allowed Kenseth to take over and Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex (who had started from the back after a practice crash) to pick up second place. However that mishap might actually have helped Hamlin at the climax of the race, when with a push from Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick he was able to close the gap on the leaders going into the final lap.
Aware that Hamlin was closing, Kenseth tried to take the high line in a defensive move and got loose, admitting after the race that this had been a mistake and that he should have kept to the inside. The decision allowed Hamlin to take the optimum line and just get a nose ahead of Truex, with Kyle Busch keeping third place ahead of Harvick while Kenseth tumbled to 14th place.
"I don't remember it honestly," said Hamlin of the thrilling climax. "I mean, I just remember pulling up in front of the #4 [Harvick] and him giving me a push and not letting off when he was pushing and ultimately that was the push to the victory for us. I know we got to the outside of the #18 [Busch], the #78 [Truex Jr.] and then the #20 [Kenseth] came up to block high
"The middle was going to be the only way I could get around both of them and 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 to go that we have to get the team victory no matter what it takes and 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."
"I did all I thought I could do," said Truex. "I had the lead til like the start of the Daytona over there on the wall and it could have been 20 feet from the line, so just really proud of that effort, really proud of that for Bass Pro Shops and our first race with Toyota. [Denny] just side drafted and I just should have – I probably should have run him up a little bit more, but I thought we were close enough that I could keep that foot or so, but I couldn't so I lost it the last second."
"If I can't win, I want my team mate to win," said Kenseth. "That's what being team mates is all about is to get everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing running good and we did that today. Those guys got the finish and I didn't, unfortunately.
"There's a million things you could do differently, but I did what I thought I should do at the time to try to win. We finished terrible, but that was the move I thought I had to make to try to preserve the win. [Denny] had such a big run, he was going to go right around me in my opinion anyway and turn four was treacherous on the bottom. I didn't think we were in a good spot to try to win it with his run, so I was trying to get in front of him. Unfortunately, his run happened pretty late in the straightway and he had the whole width of the corner to make a move and he was able to cross back over and get under me."
The fourth member of the JGR line-up, Carl Edwards, had been isolated from his team mates after an early incident sparked by SHR stand-in Brian Vickers spinning on lap 56. However Edwards rallied late in the day and managed to pick up fifth place at the finish ahead of Joey Logano (Penske), Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing), Regan Smith (Tommy Baldwin Racing) and Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing), with SHR's Kurt Busch rounding out the top ten.
Pole sitter Chase Elliott led for the first three laps but had been quickly ousted from the front by his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Elliott - who had come into the race as the youngest-ever Daytona 500 pole sitter and who had also won Saturday's Xfinity Series race (see below) - was then an early casualty with a solo crash coming off turn 4 on lap 19. A trip across the grass verge did heavy damage to the front-end of the #24 which took some time to repair in the team garage and left the rookie circulating 40 laps behind the leaders in 37th place.
"Just got turned around there off of four," the 20-year-old said later. "Got in the middle and got loose. Lost it and spun out. I hate it for everybody at less than 20 laps in and have something dumb like that happen. I apologise to my guys."
Earnhardt's luck was little better. Having come into this weekend as the pre-race favourite, he was involved in his own accident in turn 4 on lap 170 which put him into the wall and put the car beyond repair in the time available, leaving him classified in 36th place.
"It caught me by surprise," he admitted. "I was trying to side-draft a guy beside me and boy, it pinned the right front. All the downforce there. We have been working on the balance all day. That was our problem. We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today.
"I just got loose," he continued. "I've been pushing real bad all day, especially off of Turn 4. We just got it really free. We took two tyres there and just didn't have overall grip I was hoping for ... We were making some ground on the leaders a little bit so that was looking pretty good because the outside line really hadn't been doing anything all day. Just busted my butt there. Driver mistake."
Just minutes later, SHR's Danica Patrick was also sidelined after clashing with Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle which sent both cars into a spin on the backstretch on lap 185. Earlier in the race there had also been a violent wreck for Front Row Motorsports' Chris Buescher and BK Racing's Matt DiBenedetto in turn 2 on lap 92, although both drivers were able to climb out of their cars and walk away before being evaluated by the infield care-centre.
"I didn't realize Greg was below me and I tried going low and we made contact," said Patrick. "It's a disappointing way to end the day, but overall, I'm happy with the way my Nature's Bakery team performed throughout Speedweeks."
"It was a pretty rough day for us," shrugged Biffle. "We got a flat trying to make the outside groove push to the front and couldn't get our lap back and then later the #10 came across our nose there. It was unfortunate but it happens. I don't know if she was trying to block me or didn't know I was there but it happens. Tough day for sure."
"I really saw nothing," reigning Xfinity Series champion Buescher said of his incident. "Matt was in there with us and he apologised, and I appreciate that. I just hate it for Love's Travel Stops coming on board for our first Daytona 500, and to leave it like this is not ideal by any means. We had a fast race car. I was having a blast out there. The handling was tough. We were fighting loose-in, loose-off, got tight on that last run, but it was a blast I was having so much fun I hate that we're standing here right now."
"I'm fine, just knocked the wind out of me there," added DiBenedetto. "We were getting loose. Everybody was sliding around a lot. Handling came into play and I have no excuse – went in there with a head of steam and got sideways, crashed, so my fault. Nobody to blame but myself ... We'll go get them at Atlanta."
Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson led for 18 laps early in the race in the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but was handed a pit lane penalty that forced him to serve a drive-thru under green flag conditions that left him finishing in 16th place.
Full Daytona 500 race results and Sprint Cup points standings
Chase Elliott clinched his first NASCAR career victory at Daytona at the wheel of the #88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in Saturday's PowerShares QQQ 300 by just 0.043 over Penske's Joey Logano. Logano had led the most of anyones having been out in front for a third of the race distance, 40 of the total 120 laps. Elliott took the lead on lap 107 following the final caution for a car stalled on the track, and had just enough gas in the tank to robustly block Logano's final lap attempt to pass and still get to the finish line - although not enough to find his way to victory lane afterwards. Pole sitter Ty Dillon (Richard Childress Racing) finished just outside the top ten in 11th place.
Camping World Truck Series:
GMS Racing's Johnny Sauter claimed his 11th Truck Series win with victory in Friday night's NextEra Energy Resources 250, his second visit to victory lane at Daytona. Sauter was half a car length ahead of Hattori Racing Enterprises' Ryan Truex when the caution flag came out on the final lap as a result of contact between Christopher Bell (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and Timothy Peters (Red Horse Racing) which sent Bell barrel-rolling in turn 1 as part of a ten-truck wreck. Bell had just pushed Sauter to the front at the final restart after a half-hour red flag stoppage following a huge wreck on lap 93 had engulfed half the 32-car field including long time leader Austin Theriault (Brad Keselowski Racing). Sauter's team mate Grant Enfinger finished two laps down in 20th place having started from pole.
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