Sparks, carnage and some thrilling pack racing; It must be the Sprint Unlimited.
Since there were a handful of spotless cars at the end of the 79-lap non-point race at Daytona International Speedway, it came up short to being a true demolition derby.
However, even race winner Denny Hamlin overcame early damage to his No. 11 Toyota before driving to victory lane for the third time in Unlimited event, leading the final 16 laps.
“It was just such a dilemma for me to figure out what lane to start in,” Hamlin said in regards to picking the quickest lane. “I had gotten good pushes from Matt [Kenseth, teammate] all night long, and I hated leaving him in that top line, but I felt like I’d had success on the bottom all night, and I didn’t want to leave it for that final restart.”
The Unlimited win is the third straight for Joe Gibbs Racing and the first Sprint Cup win of any kind for crew chief Mike Wheeler.
“This is big for me and [Wheeler],” Hamlin said. “It’s not like he’s an unknown and I need to get to know ‘Wheels.’ We’ve been together for so long.”
Using clever pit strategy on lap 22, Hamlin grabbed the lead on lap 26, rarely leaving the top 5 from that point forward. It turned out to be the safest place.
Subbing for an injured Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers started 18th in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet before having some close calls in the middle of three-wide situations in the opening circuits. With a flat right-rear tire, Vickers spun into Dale Earnhardt, Jr. into Turn 1 before pounding the outside SAFER barrier left front first.
“It was a hard hit. They are never fun,” Vickers said who returned from on-and-off blood clot issues since 2010. “You blow a right-rear tire, you hit driver-side at 200 (mph), but that is part of racing. That is all the risk we take. I’m fine, I feel fine. I was having fun.”
The accident also swallowed up Clint Bowyer and SHR teammate Kevin Harvick, who was looking for a fourth triumph in the season-opening shootout.A lap-45 crash took Jimmie Johnson through the backstretch grass, ripping the front nose off the No. 48 and ending his night in the 22nd spot.
Brad Keselowski spent 26 laps out front before falling to a ninth-place finish. The 2012 series champion says this race is all about staying up front to avoid the fireworks.
“It is a very high aggression level race, and I think that is a good thing,” he said.
With two more multi-car accidents in the scheduled distance, the front of the field even proved to be a danger with trash [bags, hot dog wrappers, etc.] littering the frontstretch, causing drivers to experience overheating problems.
Joey Logano, despite finishing second, believes it is a “huge concern.”
“It looked like a landfill on the front straightaway,” he said. When you’re the leader, you’re the first one and there’s no way to get it off unless you give up the lead. The back straightaway is clean, so it’s all coming from the grandstands.”
A final restart with two laps to go gave the sport the first look at the new NASCAR Overtime procedure which gives the field an unlimited amount of attempts to reach the overtime line on the backstretch. Once they hit the overtime line, the race will end if a caution waves.
Paul Menard took a shot at the lead on the last lap before blending into third spot behind Logano and race winner Hamlin. A five-car crash ensued in Turn 1, ending the race under yellow.
“I missed probably three or four really close wrecks,” said fourth-place finisher Kyle Larson. “Hopefully, I didn’t use up all my luck before next Sunday. But I’m happy with a solid finish there.”
Rounding out the top-10 finishers is Casey Mears fifth with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle.
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