Daytona International Speedway has never been higher. And during Sunday’s 58th Daytona 500, it’s never been closer as Denny Hamlin gave a last-lap bump to Matt Kenseth in turn 4 before edging Martin Truex, Jr. to the line to win his first Daytona 500.
“It’s the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” Hamlin said. “Toyota, it’s huge for them, getting their first Daytona 500 victory. Just such a huge team victory. There is no better feeling than what I have right now.
Riding the inside lane in the closing 20 laps, Kenseth was looking to bring home a third win in the Daytona 500 before Hamlin jumped to the high lane with help from Kevin Harvick.
Shifting to a three wide move between Kenseth and Truex, Hamlin forced Kenseth loose, setting up the thrilling photo finish.
“[Kenseth] was going to get, at least, beside the [No.] 78. There was no question in my mind about that. After that, it was going to be a crap shot.
“We crossed the white flag, I move up into turn 1, in front of the [No.] 4. I’m thinking that I got the top lane covered, the bottom lane is filled with my Toyota teammates. We’re sitting pretty good for JGR and Toyota to get a victory.
“And [Harvick] just kept hitting my back bumper and just kept lunging more and more forward. I thought for sure the [Nos.] 78 or 18 were [going to] move up and stop that run. They didn’t, they were committed.”
Truex officially lost the race by only 0.010 seconds — the closest margin of all time in the Daytona 500 — in his first race for Toyota.
“It was a great day for our team, our first time in a Toyota,” Truex said. “The last lap, we were in great position behind Matt. I felt like if Matt stayed in front of us, maybe he would’ve held off Denny. He went up to block his run and Denny cut inside made it three wide.”
Leading only two laps, Truex spent plenty of time in the runner-up position in the 200-lap race. Being second on the final lap, Truex felt his best shot at the win was going to come off Turn 4.
“I was kind of content to stay where I was until off of [Turn] 4,” Truex said. “I wasn’t sure who was going to be on that outside line, and I knew I had Kyle [Busch] behind me. They got outside of Kyle pretty early. I either jump in front of Harvick out there or stay with Matt and Kyle.”
“I feel like I needed to stay in line until the front straightaway.”Cole Pearn, crew chief for Truex, Jr., said they were waiting for something to shake out before making a move for the win.
“Where we were sitting, it was kind of hard to guess what you needed to do,” Pearn said. “Man, we were so close [laughter].”
Kenseth slid the car against the outside wall before regaining control and driving to an eventual 14th-place finish. Kenseth says the move by teammate Hamlin was “racing for the Daytona 500.”
“[Hamlin] had a big enough run where I felt like if I stayed on the bottom in front of Martin, I was going to finish second at the best. I made the block and didn’t let him get to the outside of me and he turned back under me. He did a masterful job at doing that.
“The last time I looked he was on the outside. He got there in the left rear and got me loose. He was doing what he needed to do to win and it obviously worked out for him.”
“I haven’t Cup raced in a while,” Smith said who began his first full-time Cup effort since 2012. “I worked hard to get back in the Cup Series and wasn’t even sure four weeks ago if that was going to happen and it did.”
Harvick – the 2007 winner of the race – said he was one move from winning a second as he pushed Hamlin on the outside lane – even after a near-crash off Turn 4 in the opening run.
“Every time your car is still running here you’re happy,” Harvick said. “It started early in the race where we almost spun out and lost the track position. And we never really got the track position back until the very end of the race.”
In an interesting twist, some of the most popular and hyped drivers throughout Speedweeks failed to bring home a win after being caught up in accidents.
Pole winner Chase Elliott led the opening three laps in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet before spinning off turn 4 and tearing up the front nose, bringing the 20-year-old to the garage for 40 laps.
The most severe incident of the day occurred on lap 93 when Matt Dibenedetto got loose into Turn 1, over corrected and pounding the SAFER barrier head-on, collected rookie Chris Buescher.
“I’m fine, it just knocked the wind out of me,” DiBenedetto said. “I have no excuse. I went in there with a head of steam, got sideways and crashed.”
The favorite to grab a third 500 win was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who joined the unfortunate club in crashing off turn 4. The No. 88 driver nosed hard into the inside wall, resulting in 36th-place end.
“It caught me by surprise there,” Earnhardt said. “I was trying to side-draft the guy beside me. We really underestimated how important handlign was going to be today. We had a rocket all week.”
For a full rundown on race results, click here.
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