Denny Hamlin was one of the favorites all of Daytona Speedweeks and Sunday he proved why. His Daytona 500 win was historic as it was the e closest finish in the long storied history of NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500 and was the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Daytona 500 in 23 years.
It was also a big deal for Toyota as it was their first Daytona 500 win for the manufacturer in a decade of trying. Until Sunday, Toyota had won some of the biggest races in motorsports including the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400. Sunday’s win however was even more special according to David Wilson president of Toyota Racing Development.
“This is very difficult for me to put in words,” Wilson said. “I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota. I’ll start by saying it’s our single biggest race in our company’s history. I’ll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003.”
Hamlin made a late race charge to win Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 by the closest finish in the long storied history of NASCAR’s biggest race. It was the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Daytona 500 in 23 years. Owner Joe Gibbs told Hamlin after he won the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday that it was great but he’d rather have the 500. Sunday Gibbs denied that he had some sort of premonition.
“I did not,” Gibbs said. “I was trying to be funny. I said, We won about seven of the Shootouts. I said, I think we have the wrong game plan here, it’s the 500. I was joking with the drivers. I think the way the week progressed, I think all the guys back at the shop have done a tremendous job. I think Mike and Denny will say that. We worked extremely hard.”
“I think what happened is we came down and our cars were all fast,” he added.” I think we had good cars. Every time I talked to the drivers, they said, Hey, look, I think we’re pretty good. Obviously there were a lot of other good cars out there. The way it worked out for us, Denny was right, it was teamwork. For us to hang together that long, that’s one thing about our racing, restrictor plate races, if you can ever do that, it’s great. The problem is you can rarely do that. We did it today.”
“I really appreciate the fact we got a chance to experience this.”
Hamlin led the most laps Sunday but found himself outside the top five in the waning laps. He was forced to make a furious charge to the front and pass fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. as the two streaked towards the checkered flag. Hamlin was able to get the job done edging Truex by .001of a second.
“This is the best,” Hamlin said. “I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 is – as a kid what you – this is the pinnacle of our sport and I’m just proud to be here.”
Hamlin’s job was made a bit less stressful thanks to the retirement of another favorite earlier in the event. On lap Dale Earnhardt Jr. a perennial Daytona favorite saw his day end on lap 170 when he went for a solo spin exiting turn 4. He avoided contact with other cars but not the inside wall and after careening into the concrete slid to a stop in the infield grass at the entrance to pit road. Earnhardt was uninjured, but his race was over.
Near the start of the race rookie Chase Elliott starting his first race as a fulltime driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series from the pole, saw his hopes for a Daytona 500 end. Elliott who won the XFINITY series race the day prior, was in a three wide battle for position on lap 19 when he lost control exiting turn 4. As he spun he clipped the nose of the car driven by Carl Edwards and ended with a slide into the infield grass. He would return many laps down and finished 37.
The winning move for Hamlin started with a pit road miscue during the last round of pit stops.
“I got cocky,” Hamlin said. “I mean, sitting over the radio, beating everyone off pit road every time we’ve ever had a green flag pit stop or caution, I beat everyone off pit road, I’m sitting here like, I’m the pit road master. Then I come in there and blow it and screw my tires up on the last stop that actually counts. I’m glad, quick thinking, telling Wheels, I slid them, I don’t know which one. He made a quick audible.
“The preparation was great,” he added. “My team was ready for anything. We didn’t lose that lead draft, even taking four tires, when everyone in front of us essentially took two. So my team was ready. The pit crew nailed a great stop to get us out there quick. day. “
Hamlin was forced to fight his way from outside the top five and was forced to use the outside line that hadn’t worked all day. As Hamlin used that outside line Sunday he got a push from Kevin Harvick that allowed him to get to the front.
On the final lap, leader Kenseth came up to try and block Hamlin. Hamlin was able to slip by and later said he used the momentum thanks to a bump from Kenseth. Kenseth fell back and Truex slid into the lead spot. As the duo charged out of the final corner Hamlin and Truex were side by side. They touched and Hamlin was able to get the few inches needed to win.
“I did all I thought I could do,” Truex said. “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…He (Denny Hamlin) 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.”
The day and the week belonged to Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin won the 500 and the Sprint Unlimited and JGR driver Kyle Busch won a Can-Cam Duel race Thursday night. Sunday however Hamlin could celebrate the biggest win of his career. A win he had dreamt about as a kid. It was something his mom reminded him of this week when she sent him a picture he had drawn of him winning the Daytona 500.
“If I remember right, it was second grade, so I’m probably seven years old,” Hamlin said. “I said I wanted to win it. I think if you look at the date, it’s like February something 1998. I missed it by a little bit on the date. I didn’t know Mike Wheeler back then, but Kerry Barton was my best friend, so he was going to be my crew chief. Ernie Elliott was going to change my tires and I wanted my car to look just like Bill Elliott’s.”
“We missed it on a few details,” he added. “I totally forgot about it, but she showed me that picture this week. The things I talked about, being J.D.’s birthday, our 11th try, everything just came together. It’s like a story that you couldn’t have written a better ending to our week.”