Who’s in the headline – Denny Hamlin put a stamp on his Daytona Speedweeks with his second triumph in three races Sunday. Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. to the line with a scintillating run that resulted in the closest finish in the history of the Daytona 500. Hamlin was the dominant car for much of the event, leading 95 laps, but a poor final pit stop put him in position to have to make the final run to the checkered flag.
What happened – Chase Elliott began his full-time Cup career in the No. 24 by putting his car on the pole during qualifying last Sunday for the Daytona 500. Unfortunately for the freshman driver, he lost control of his car on lap 19 and pounded the frontstretch grass, sending his car to the garage and putting him 40 laps down. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson then took turns leading double-digit laps during the first half of the race, along with Hamlin. In the second half, it was Hamlin who took control – along with a long line of Toyotas – until he had a poor entrance to his pit stall on the final stop of the day that dropped him to seventh in the standings. That gave teammate Matt Kenseth the lead and set up a scenario where the top five Toyota teams in the series, the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars and their new satellite, Furniture Row Racing, were within the top six spots on the track. Joey Logano was the lone interloper, driving his Ford as the laps wound down toward the finish.
On the final lap of the race, Kevin Harvick led a freight train towards the front on the outside of the backstretch. Hamlin pulled up from the fourth position to block the advance and was immediately shoved towards the lead. Kenseth, sensing the charge, moved up the track to block Hamlin’s run and the driver of the No. 11 dove down the track. Kenseth attempted to block but made contact with Hamlin and slid sideways, making an amazing save but losing momentum and plummeting to 14th place. Hamlin and Truex then dueled side-by-side down the frontstretch with the lead exchanging hands no less than four times before Hamlin crossed the line inches ahead of Truex for the win.
Why you should care – The plate racing leading up to Sunday’s 500 was anything but exciting. The Sprint Unlimited was a wreckfest where a full third of the event was run under caution. Next came the Can-Am Duels which, in my opinion were glorified parades with little passing at the front of the packs. The 500, by comparison, had cars running two- and three-wide for the vast majority of the event and the outside line was able to make some progress toward the front. The 20 lead changes were predominantly ceremonial but cars were at least moving forward and backward unlike the earlier races during the week. The plate track package needs to be tweaked for sure and, based on the answers from Tony Gibson in Tech Talk this week, that is on the table for the near future. Fortunately, the drivers put on a show this weekend running the current package to salvage Speedweeks and make this 500 memorable.
What your friends are talking about – Tony Stewart is on the mend in Kannapolis, N.C., and appears to be targeting a return to the series in May. Stewart goes back in for x-rays the week of March 9 and will know more definitively how well the bone is healing. If it is on pace, Stewart will be able to return in time for Charlotte, similar to Kyle Busch in 2015. If that is the case, the medical waiver discussion can begin although his performance will have to be far superior to 2015 or it will be a moot point.
Toyota has been in the sport for 10 years. It was a slow process at first for them, going winless until their second year and failing to make the Chase until their alignment with Joe Gibbs Racing. While they’ve had success ever since, this past year has been the pinnacle of their development in the sport. Since June 2015 they have won the Brickyard for the first time, a Cup title for the first time, and now the Daytona 500 for the first time. Hamlin’s victory leaves them with wins in every race on the schedule and an early edge over Chevrolet. Their entrance into the sport was met with much resistance from the fans, but they are now as accepted as any manufacturer. How important was Sunday to them? Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson called the Daytona 500 win “the single biggest race in the history of the company.” Wow.
The Daytona Rising project is an amazing edifice that is setting a new standard for fan engagement and amenities at a race venue. The technology and hospitality I saw presented at Speedweeks was second to none in the racing world. Creating partnerships with companies that are invested in the sport is a shining example of investing in the future of racing. Unfortunately, there are two items which are about as annoying as nails on a chalkboard. The first is the constant reference to the project as the first motorsports “stadium.” The definition of a stadium is sports arena, usually oval- or horseshoe-shaped with tiers of seats for spectators. Every racetrack on the schedule, aside from the road courses, has stands that have tiers of seats for spectators. The insistence on referring to it as a stadium all Speedweeks was tiresome.
Secondly, the areas where fans enter the new grandstands is referred to as injectors. An injector is an item that forces something into a space or tissue. Fans should never be forced into anything. Please stop referring to them as injectors.
Similar to the start of any professional sports season, there is always an air of optimism around the beginning of any race year. It may be due to the momentum from Daytona Rising or it may truly be that the sport is cyclical and it is just starting another rebound. Whatever the case may be, the stands for all of the events this Speedweeks were better attended than they have been in half of a decade. It may be a blip or it may be a legitimate uptick.
The surface of Daytona International Speedway is beginning to regain its character. Handling was a legitimate concern this weekend for the first time since the repave. Give it another two years post-new asphalt and it is going to be back to where it was before the surface was redone.
Who is mad – Kenseth has to be the maddest of all of the drivers leaving Daytona. He was poised to win another Daytona 500 with half a lap to go. Harvick put on the charge and Hamlin pulled up, purely to block the advance of the rival Chevrolet. The shot he received from Harvick propelled him forward so quickly that he was about to pass Kenseth for the lead. Kenseth went up to make the block but went a little higher than necessary, opening the door for Hamlin to sweep to the bottom and make the run to win the race. Racing can be a cruel mistress, but Kenseth handled the situation like a professional and will be in contention for a championship again this year.
Earnhardt was supremely confident going into the race Sunday. He’s had that glint in his eye a few times on restrictor plate tracks over the years and it has almost always turned into a victory. This weekend, he jumped to the lead on lap four after dominating his Duel race and looked like he was going to cruise to a third 500 win. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Earnhardt slipped back into the pack thanks to pit stops and never regained the handle that he needed to win the race. He ended up losing control, by himself, thanks to a gust of wind in the fourth turn. A car nicknamed Amelia, one Earnhardt pestered owner Rick Hendrick to put in a museum someday, now may wind up there a little earlier than he may have wanted.
Elliott was the feel good story of the week but, when it was all said and done, he was none too pleased with how any of it unfolded. Elliott just was never comfortable in the Cup car, never found drafting partners and seemed out of sorts with this handling package. He dropped like a stone in his Duel twice, and was not much better in the 500, bringing out the first caution of the race. Despite the ugly 37th-place finish, Elliott will have a long career in this sport. He will rival Earnhardt for Most Popular Driver and eventually contend for championships. But right now? He has to take some lumps as a rookie.
Who is happy – Truex in many people’s world should be truly angry after missing the win by inches. Instead, in light of the challenges he and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex have faced over the last couple of seasons, it is just a blip on the radar. Truex came away from the race pragmatic, realizing that the new alliance with JGR and Toyota is going to afford him the opportunity to run for wins and titles. He is very optimistic about his future and that afforded him the chance to view this Daytona 500 glass as more than half full.
Regan Smith climbed behind the wheel of the Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet after a year in the XFINITY Series for the 500 this year. Aside from being a minor participant in the Elliott caution, Smith was a mover toward the front. There were a couple of setbacks on pit stops but, in the end, he came home with an eighth-place run. For a driver who was uncertain if he would be racing at all this year and a team that is trying to make it in this sport the old-fashioned way, it couldn’t have been a better result.
When the checkered flag flew:
- Hamlin won the 58th running of the Daytona 500. This is Hamlin’s first win in the 500 and his first win of 2016.
- Hamlin is the sixth driver to win the preseason exhibition race and the 500 in the same year. The last to do it? Dale Jarrett in 2000.
- This is Hamlin’s seventh victory of his career at Daytona but it is his first points-paying win in the Cup Series at the 2.5-mile oval.
- This was Hamlin’s 27th win of his career in 363 starts. Hamlin is tied with Kurt Busch for 26th on the all-time wins list, breaking a tie with Earnhardt Jr.
- Hamlin’s margin of victory was .0.010 seconds. That is the closest margin of victory in the history of the Daytona 500.
- Truex finished second for his best career finish at Daytona. It is his first top five and his third top 10 at Daytona.
- Sunday marked Truex’s ninth career runner-up finish. He is tied for 67th on the all-time second-place list with Tiny Lund, Ken Schrader, Bob Welborn and Lee Roy Yarbrough.
- Kyle Busch crossed the line in third position. This was Busch’s 87th career top-three finish. Busch is ranked 28th on the all-time list. His podium broke a tie with Rex White.
- Ryan Blaney was the Rookie of the Race (19th).
- This victory is Toyota’s first triumph in the Daytona 500 (10 attempts).
Takin’ it to the Bank: This segment will not be included thanks to the elimination of reported purse money in the final race rundowns.
What is in the cooler?
The races leading up to the Daytona 500 in the Cup Series were less than stellar. The anticipation for the race was tempered for sure thanks to those appetizers. Fortunately, the main event was far from disappointing. The race was solid but not spectacular before the final-lap frenzy. The run down the backstretch and through turns 3 and 4, however resulted in a spectacular finish to the event. As a result, this race receives five out of six Daytona Blonds from Daytona Beach Brewing Company.
Where do you point your DVR for next week –The traveling show heads north (however slightly) to Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend. Ed Clark has guaranteed the temperature will be above 50 degrees or the track will refund ticket purchases. At this point, the weather looks like it is going to be quite comfortable, leading to perhaps a better than average crowd. The race will go off shortly after 1 p.m. ET, seen on FOX or heard on local MRN radio affiliates and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.