JD Gibbs is widely credited in NASCAR with discovering Denny Hamlin. Hamlin, in his first race since Gibbs’ tragic death at age 49, repaid the favor with a victory in the 2019 Daytona 500.
Hamlin held off Kyle Busch in a green-white-checkered finish, winning The Great American Race a second time at Daytona International Speedway. He edged Busch by .138 seconds in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season opener, while Erik Jones ran third to give Joe Gibbs Racing an unlikely 1-2-3 finish.
In the process, he honored the man in JD, who also discovered him as a late model racer out in Virginia. Without JD, Hamlin would never have come to Gibbs, grief triggering an emotional celebration that even had owner Joe Gibbs choked up.
“It’s the most emotional and biggest win I’ve had in my life,” Gibbs said. “In anything.”
Toyotas led just one lap in the Daytona preliminary races (the Clash and Thursday’s Duel qualifying races) but came to the front in Sunday’s main event. Hamlin, Busch and Matt DiBenedetto combined to lead 116 of 207 laps as the Camrys suddenly became the cars to beat.
DiBenedetto led large stretches and also appeared to have the most speed. But an untimely bump from Paul Menard on lap 191 ended his chances, shifting focus to the Busch/Hamlin duo up front.
“Just racing hard,” DiBenedetto said after crashing out. “The most fun speedway race I’ve ever had in my life. All these guys, Leavine Family Racing, we proved what we’re here to do. Very, very heartbroken but appreciative to be here. Just the beginning.”
DiBenedetto’s incident sparked a wreck that took out 11 cars, the first of several Big Ones down the stretch that decimated the 40-car field. Only 19 cars finished the race, 14 on the lead lap as a series of crashes sent the race into overtime.
The first was caused by Paul Menard’s bumper as an ill-timed bump of DiBenedetto’s No. 95 sent him spinning in front of virtually the entire field.
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“I hooked the No. 95,” Menard said, one week after he was the victim of a draft gone wrong. “I take the blame for that one.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. then triggered a wreck the next restart which took out a half dozen more cars. Kevin Harvick was the biggest contender eliminated in an incident started where Stenhouse hit good friend Kyle Larson.
“Brains come unglued,” said Kyle Busch. “That’s all it is. The brain to the gas pedal foot doesn’t work quite the same way. It comes down to the end, somehow, someway there’s always that caution with 30 or 40 to go and it’s chaos after that.”
One final crash happened on lap 199 when Clint Bowyer got hooked by Michael McDowell on the backstretch. Another half dozen cars were involved, stopping the race. In all, two red flags halted the action for over 40 minutes.
That set up one final restart with Hamlin and Busch on the front row. Hamlin got the jump and then held on as Busch struggled to get the right push behind him. That cleared the way for an emotional victory for the driver, owner Joe Gibbs and the crew as they honored their fallen comrade.
“This one’s for JD,” Hamlin said. “We are desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives but his legacy lives on with Joe Gibbs Racing.”
The victory was also the first for crew chief Chris Gabehart in his first race working with Hamlin full time. Old crew chief Mike Wheeler moved over to DiBenedetto’s team for 2019.
Busch, who is now 0-for-15 in the sport’s biggest race, was frustrated at the lack of help behind him.
“Trying to work on a run with the No. 11,” Busch said. “You can never trust those behind you and they all scattered and went around me. It wasn’t meant to be today, frustrating for sure. Nice to see a teammate win, it’s very, very bittersweet but we’ll come back and try again.”
Both Busch and Logano were agitated with McDowell after the race, claiming he failed to push them and killed his own chances at victory in the process.
“I thought the Ford would come with me,” Logano said. “Typically, you kind of expect manufacturers to work together. I was very surprised by his decision.”
Ty Dillon was sixth, tying his best career MENCS finish. Kyle Larson came back from three wrecks to run seventh, while rookie Ryan Preece, Jimmie Johnson and Ross Chastain rounded out the top 10. Both Preece and Chastain earned the first top-10 finishes of their MENCS careers.
Jamie McMurray ran 22nd in his final MENCS race, knocked out in one of the late-race wrecks. Bubba Wallace was 38th, victimized by an early incident where Tyler Reddick ran in the back of him after Stenhouse spun Kurt Busch in stage one.
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