Last year was a frustrating time for Denny Hamlin, effectively ruled out of the Sprint Cup championship early on after suffering a back injury in a wreck at Easter that left him watching from the sidelines.
He'd finally recovered his race-winning form in time for the last event of 2013, and on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway the Joe Gibbs Racing driver showed that he has emphatically maintained that momentum into the new year by sweeping all staged of the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race raising the curtain on NASCAR action in 2014.
"I started feeling better last year and after the win at Homestead," Hamlin confirmed after the finish. "I realised that when we run as good as I feel, and I feel pretty comfortable in the car I can do about anything I feel like. You don't like to talk about what you can do, you want to show people."
Reserved for the 18 drivers who won pole last season or who are previous winners of the event, the format for the Sprint Unlimited non-championship race is unique in being set by a public vote by fans. This year the voting mandated the starting order as the final Friday evening practice times, decided upon a 30-25-20 breakdown for the 75-lap race and called for a two-tyre pit stop before the final stint.
All of which meant Hamlin was in front of the field for the green flag, although his place at the front was quickly taken by Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray, with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin also taking stints on point before Hamlin returned six laps before the end of the first segment to lead when the caution flag came out.
It has been a comparatively quiet start to the event with only Terry Labonte retiring early with technical issues. However just before the scheduled end to the first segment, the calm was shattered by Jimmie Johnson getting loose out of the final corner and spinning into a hard impact with the inside wall, ending his evening early.
"The back of the car just got light coming up off of turn four," he explained. "I was trying to set up a pass on the #11, I had a good run going. As I looked to the outside of him up off of four; I looked to the outside off of four, the back of the car just started sliding out from under me. I had a long, lazy slide to the inside wall there on the front stretch."
While the first segment might have been otherwise straightforward and incident free, the same could not be said for the middle stint which saw a major wreck six laps in that started when Brad Keselowski checked up slightly sending Matt Kenseth seeking space on the inside line only to find that Joey Logano had the same idea. The contact spun the #20 and ignited a wreck that eliminated Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
"I was just kind of easing my way down there," said an apologetic Kenseth. "I had no idea Joey was that close to me," he added, noting that it was "Not the way you want to start the season."
"I didn't see anything from the time it started to the time it ended," said Stenhouse said. "Talking to Danica when I got in [to the medical centre for evaluation] I drilled her when she was pretty much sitting still. I couldn't see, couldn't turn and just really destroyed our Nationwide Insurance Ford."
There was concern for Stewart who was making his first race outing since breaking his leg in a race accident last August, but the three-time champion hopped out of the #24 seemingly none the worse for the experience. "There's no pain right now," he said. "But we'll see what happens in about an hour when the adrenaline wears off!"
There was a red flag for the clean-up during which NASCAR made the unusual concession to the remaining cars that where necessary they could effect repairs in time to be ready for the restart, which was a lifesaver for Logano and Harvick. The intermission was made all the more eventful by the sight of the pace car driven by former NASCAR racer Brett Bodine itself breaking down and crawling onto the apron belching a trail of flames and smoke behind it.
"I thought it was a race car," said Brad Keselowski later. "Somebody told me it was the pace car and I just started laughing! [Just] when you think you've seen it all..."
Exactly as he had done in the first segment, Hamlin reclaimed the lead for the final laps of the segment and finished 0.131s ahead of Keselowski. Hamlin also won the race off pit road after the two-tyre stop ahead of McMurray, Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and it was Earnhardt who had the initial pace at the start of the final 20-lap dash to the finish only to end up helped into the wall by Marcos Ambrose on lap 65.
"I was trying to push him and there was a little bit of a zig and a little bit of a zag and the next thing you know I helped him in the fence," Ambrose said afterwards. "I apologize to Junior. I'll try and find him later on if he wants to talk to me."
Fortunately Earnhardt didn't appear to be taking it all that badly. “It was time to go,” he said. “I know he was trying to do what he thinks he needed to do, and so was I.
"Me and Marcos were going down the front straightaway and he was pushing me and I thought he was committed to pushing me so I started moving around and working off the guys on the inside," Earnhardt continued. "He went to the outside, and I didn't know that
"I was kind of moving around, and the next thing I know I was getting turned into the wall," he finished, adding that the whole thing had been "just a miscommunication."
That left Penske team mates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano battling with Richard Childress Racing's newest signing Ryan Newman at the restart with five laps to go to the chequered flag. Keselowski won the initial duel only to come under attack from JGR duo Hamlin and Busch, with Hamlin then committing to a daring three-wide move to come from behind on the penultimate lap and clinch the win.
Keselowski finished second almost two tenths back, with Busch settling for third place after having survived a spin through the infield grass earlier in the final segment caused by contact with Keselowski, suggesting that some old grudges from 2013 may yet be revived and play a part in the 2014 action.
The Sprint Cup Series season officially gets underway next weekend with the Daytona 500. Qualifying for the race starts with time trials this Sunday afternoon which set the front row of the grid for the race itself, and also determine the running order for the two Duel races held on Thursday night that will decide the grid for the main event.
See full race results for the Sprint Unlimited