“It was a total team effort.”
Generally, when the winning driver makes such a statement in Victory Lane, they are referring to their own team. It’s their crew chief, pit crew, over-the-wall members who made the difference in getting them over the hump. Yes, there is gratitude expressed to the organization as a whole, but really the “team effort” is for the one that won the race.
“This is a team victory,” Hamlin said in Victory Lane. “My teammates did an amazing job all day working together – all the Toyotas.”
In this case, “teammates” even extended to Martin Truex, Jr., who is a semi-teammate to Hamlin and JGR. Truex, Sunday’s runner-up finisher became the newest member of the Toyota Racing family when Furniture Row Racing switched from Chevrolet during the offseason.
From the get-go, it was pretty obvious that the Toyotas were going to be very hard to beat in the Daytona 500. Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and teammate Kyle Busch won the second Can-Am Duel Thursday. All five teams – Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards being the other two – showed speed throughout all of Speedweeks.
In the race itself, Hamlin led the most laps with 95, followed by Kenseth at 40 and Busch at 19. It was not uncommon for all four JGR cars plus Truex to be up at the front of the pack, which is actually how they were lined up inside the closing laps of the race.
Their raw speed working together seemed to fend off all challengers… or so they thought. Kenseth was leading at the white-flag lap with Truex, Busch, Hamlin and Edwards behind him. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano were trying to make the top lane work when Harvick began making progress.
“I saw the No. 4 coming,” Hamlin said in the media center following the race. “I said, ‘If I didn’t make a run, he was going to make a run just like I did.’ I went up there to block, he hit me so hard it shot me three cars forward. I had to do something with that run. It’s crazy, it happened so fast. I literally had to watch it back to figure out what in the world happened.”
Hamlin jumped up in front of Harvick, Kenseth moved up the track to try and block, and Hamlin moved to the bottom to make the pass. From there, he was side-by-side with Truex all the way to the finish line where he beat Truex by mere inches in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history — .010 seconds.
“I didn’t know we had won,” Hamlin explained. “I knew it was close. I saw the pylon change and blink at the last second for the No. 11. I heard on the radio people were all crazy, excited. I assumed we won when that happened.”
When Kenseth threw a block, he and Hamlin made contact and Kenseth fell back to 14th. Busch finished third and Edwards fifth after suffering heavy right front damage early in the race.
It led to a positive day for JGR from top to bottom. Despite finishing outside the top 10 after leading at the white-flag lap, even Kenseth had positive things to say about his teammates.
“If I can’t win, I want my teammate to win,” he said post-race. “That’s what being teammates is all about, to get everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing running good and we did that today. Those guys got the finish. I didn’t, unfortunately.”
Truex, though disappointed at coming up just short at winning the biggest race of the season, was equally pleased at way the five cars worked together.
“It’s our first race for Toyota and I am really proud of our teamwork with JGR [Joe Gibbs Racing],” Truex said. “That was a big plus getting this relationship kicked off. Cole [Pearn, crew chief] and I worked hard all week to make sure we did the right things and we’re going to continue to work hard to make sure those guys know we’re team players and we’re in it for the long haul. I’m really proud of that, and congrats to Denny [Hamlin]. He got me by a couple of feet.”
Busch, after missing the Daytona 500 in 2015 due to an injury in the XFINITY Series race the day before, wasn’t able to make a run at the lead because of Hamlin’s move but had a nearly front row view of the photo finish.
“It just shows that when you have a game plan and you work together and you stick together, it works for you,” he said afterwards. “A lot of the other teams, they may come up with a game plan and they do this and they do that, but sometimes those game plans, they fall off and those guys – you don’t stick together. That’s probably the longest and the best I think our JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars have ever worked together and it certainly showed.”
Despite the fact that all of the drivers seemed pleased with the amount of teamwork that went into victory, only one driver was really happy when all was said and done – race winner Hamlin. Team owner Joe Gibbs had to balance the elation of the No. 11 team with the disappointment of the No. 20 crew.
“I got to tell you, it’s extremely hard,” Gibbs said during post-race interviews. “You wind up with Denny, you’re so happy. I looked up and actually where I was looking to the broadcast, the cars were coming at me, I thought we lost. I looked up, saw we won. So, I went through that emotion. Then you’re thinking about Matt, everything that happened to him. We’re a team. It’s four cars, four drivers, four crew chiefs. We’re all together. But, man, you know what a heartbreak that is. I know Denny felt the same way. Kyle said, ‘Hey, I was thinking about jumping up there. I didn’t.’ It’s all those emotions wrapped in that. I think it’s a great experience, and it was by a few inches. So you got to give those guys, the No. 78 team, just a lot of credit, too.”
Nevertheless, Toyota Racing and JGR accomplished their goal: getting JGR or another Toyota driver into Victory Lane for the Daytona 500 and TRD their first win in the Great American Race.
“You know, I knew whomever came out with the lead on this green flag sequence had a great shot because he had five teammates, or four teammates, right behind him,” Hamlin said of the remaining portion of the race. “We had just talked about, ‘let’s get a team victory.’ I know we all want to win this thing, but if we all stick together, we greatly increase our chances of winning this race.
“I’m with Joe, you know, this is a great moment for me, but I feel awful for Matt because he’s such a great friend, such a great teammate. But I’m just so proud of all my other teammates for us being so committed to each other for 500 miles today. That was very rare that you see the selflessness that you saw, even with two laps to go. All of us were committed to pushing that No. 20 car to a victory.”
Of course, we all know that’s not what wound up happening, but the endgoal was still the same. It’s a strategy that proved a long time coming, one Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson has been looking for since their 2007 debut in this race started with a jet fuel incident and a handful of DNQs. Claiming Sunday in his post-race presser the collaboration between JGR and now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing was never perfected, Wilson now feels the addition of Truex may be the right dose of chemistry the manufacturer needed.
“Think about how many plans you put in place before a race as momentous as this,” he said. “You can’t control what you can’t control. Most of the time those plans go by the wayside. But our teams, our drivers, had the discipline and the trust in each other to execute that plan to a T. To come all the way to the white flag, 1-2-3-4-5, and then it was a race. Today was a special day for Toyota.”
It’s an impressive performance yet a weird vibe for all those involved; working as a team in this way still produces just one individual result that stands out. Perhaps Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff put it best:
“We’re disappointed we didn’t win it especially after leading that many laps at the end,” he explained. “But you know, I’m not sure I’m going to run over there right now and congratulate him [Denny Hamlin] – not because I’m not happy he won, but because I’m disappointed we didn’t win, but we’ll sleep on it and then in the morning or on the airplane we’ll know we’re one big team and it’s going to be nice to see that trophy sitting there in the shop even if it doesn’t have our car number on it. So obviously, we’re going to be disappointed. If we weren’t, then we’d need to go do something else.”
The next restrictor plate race isn’t until May 1 at Talladega Superspeedway, giving the Toyota camp (and other teams) time to decide if they will assume the same strategy the next time the opportunity presents itself.