By Steve Mickey
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin finished off a record setting Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway by winning his first ever Daytona 500.
Even though he had led a race high 94 laps going into the last lap, Hamlin found himself trailing his teammate Matt Kenseth as the field took the white flag.
Daytona has turned into a track that if you are not leading, you do not want to make your move to the front until the final lap and that is exactly what Hamlin did when he pulled out from the inside line to jump in front of what was a hard charging outside line led by Kevin Harvick. With Harvick on his bumper, Hamlin had the momentum to make the pass as Kenseth tried to move up to make a block only to lose control of his car.
When Kenseth left the bottom of the track to move up and block, it opened the door for Martin Truex Jr. to take over the lead. Truex Jr. was being pushed by Kyle Busch and the tandem of Toyotas set sail for the checkered flag with Hamlin alongside. The two battled coming out of turn four with Truex Jr. holding on to a slim lead but with the help of a side draft coming to the finish line, Hamlin took the checkered flag in a photo finish.
The margin of victory was the closest in Daytona 500 history at 0.010 of a second. That margin on the stopwatch translated to Hamlin’s car crossing the finish line six inches ahead of Truex Jr.
The win was also the first ever for Toyota and it also displayed how well the rest of the series can expect the Toyota teams to be working together this season. Besides the win Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch came home third and his teammate Carl Edwards finished fifth.
True Jr. who drives for Furniture Row Racing was competing for the first time in the series in a Toyota as that organization made the move after leaving Chevrolet at the end of the 2015 season. Toyota was excited to add the one car team after Truex Jr. made it all the way to the final race of the Chase. Part of the incentive for Furniture Row to make the change in manufacturers was that it would also include an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing that would provide equipment and maybe more importantly the sharing of information between Gibbs’ four teams and Truex Jr’s team.
Hamlin’s win on Sunday in the 500 completed a sweep of Daytona’s Speedweeks Cup races as he also won the first on track action of the season in the Sprint Unlimited held the opening weekend at Daytona. He becomes the sixth driver to win both the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500 in the same season joining Lee Petty (1959), Richard Petty (1973), Cale Yarborough (1977), Jeff Gordon (1999) and Dale Jarrett (2000). That is one of the more exclusive lists in the sport as all but Gordon are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and there is no doubt that once Gordon is eligible he will be enshrined.
The success that the Toyota camp enjoyed while at Daytona will be challenged by both Ford and Chevrolet as the series will now go about the business of determining which drivers will make the Chase at the next stop on the schedule at Atlanta. The mile and half-track will be the first race of the season that will use the new rules package that will produce lower downforce on the non-restrictor plate tracks.
PIT NOTES: This will be the only stop for the Sprint Cup Series this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway but the track has put together one of the best weekends of the entire NASCAR season. All three of NASCAR’s three premier series including the Camping World Truck Series and the Xfinity Series will compete this weekend. Unlike at other tracks that host all three series on three different days, Atlanta will host a Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series doubleheader on Saturday.
Event: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.5 mile quad-oval, 24o of banking in the turns)
Date: February 28, 1 p.m.
Defending Champion: Jimmie Johnson