Denny Hamlin Wins His Third Sprint Unlimited In Overtime

by February 14, 2016

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In an epic, overtime finish, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin captured his third victory in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.

Denny Hamlin’s win marked the fourth Sprint Unlimited victory for Joe Gibbs Racing in the past five years. The 35-year old Virginia native joined Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Jarrett, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart as being the only drivers to win at least three Sprint Unlimited events. Hamlin’s previous two wins in the exhibition race came in 2006 during his first fulltime season and in 2014. Hamlin led 39 laps en route to the victory on Saturday night.

“I don’t know what it is,” Hamlin said. “I think I’ve really ‑‑ I’ve gotten better at speedway racing over the last few years and really learned a lot from my teammates. But realistically you can go back and look at this race a million times, and had my teammates not stuck with me at the right times, we wouldn’t have been able to stay up front.”

Although a lot has changed over the off-season, the intense competition that’s historically portrayed during NASCAR’s opening race of the season in Daytona certainly hasn’t. The race saw 12 lead changes between three leaders, and throughout the night, the Sprint Unlimited had seven cautions.

The post-race statistics may show that Hamlin had a dominate car, but he was actually caught up in the first caution of the night. Just 14 laps into the race, Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. blew a tire in Turn 2, and as Stenhouse attempted to save his No. 17 Fastenal Ford, he made contact with the right side of Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota. Hamlin was forced to pit for repairs, but by lap 26, he had made his way into the race lead.

Just prior to Hamlin being scored as the leader of the pack, the first “big one” took place in Turn 1 and brought out the caution on lap 24. Brian Vickers who is subbing for Tony Stewart throughout Speedweeks blew a right rear tire while entering the corner. Vickers then hit Dale Earnhardt Jr. and went driver’s side into the wall, while simultaneously being hit by Kevin Harvick. Others involved in the crash included Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch.

“I cut a right-rear tire,” Vickers said. “I don’t know how it happened. The No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and I were racing hard there going across the start/finish line. The No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and I got together going four-wide early in the race. Had a little smoke for a lap and then it went away. I suspect that could have been it or I could have just run over something, there is no telling. It’s unfortunate. This Mobil 1 Chevy was just charging to the front.”

The third caution of the night didn’t come out until lap 45 when Jimmie Johnson went spinning through the grass on the backstretch. Johnson was running three-wide in the middle of Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard at the time of the accident. Johnson made slight contact with Casey Mears, as well as Paul Menard on the high side, and the chain reaction sent Johnson spinning. The front end of his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet dug into the grass, destroying the nose of the car.

“I was trying to back out of it,” Johnson said. “I don’t think the two guys I was trying to be in the middle of, knew that I was there and I could see the door closing. I was trying to back out of it. I did a decent job getting out of there and not spinning the No. 1 (McMurray) and the No. 13 (Mears) and I got hit from behind and that sent me down to the infield. It’s unfortunate because the hole was there and I had a good run coming up through the center but they just started closing the door on me.”

On lap 58, the caution flew for the fourth time after Jamie McMurray got into the back of Kasey Kahne while going down the backstretch. Kahne then slid up the track and into AJ Allmendinger. Ryan Newman was involved in the crash, also.

“I mean it’s just the way this racing is,” Allmendinger said. “(Jamie) McMurray tried to make a move that probably didn’t need to be made at that time, but it’s the Sprint Unlimited that is what we do.  It was a tough night. We got a little bit of damage early in that first wreck. I think it was probably good to have a little wreck management to figure out what we need to do. We didn’t have quite the speed we wanted, but I kind of figured out where I needed to run overall to get some laps it was good. You don’t want to end like this, but to get Kroger and our new partners Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine out there. I thought if we could get to the end you never know what happens.”

In the closing laps of the race, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske fought it out for the victory; however, with just three laps to go, all chaos broke loose down the backstretch. The mayhem started when Carl Edwards made a bold, three-wide move between Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski exiting Turn 2. Edwards and Keselowski made contact, and from there, it was just a huge chain reaction. Casey Mears, Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola were all involved. After the accident, Carl Edwards took full blame for the contact.

“I just tried to wedge my car into a spot and I got up there and I could feel Brad (Keselowski) and I just didn’t know how overlapped I was,” Edwards said. “I knew I had to get in front of him to make it and it’s 100 percent my fault. I wrecked everybody, but, man, we were having fun and just we were going to be aggressive in this race, had to go for it and I took two high risk maneuvers and one of worked and one of them didn’t.”

Not only did the crash between Edwards, Keselowski and others shake up the front of the pack, but it set the field up for NASCAR’s newest green-white-checkered format that features the overtime line.

Once the field went back to green, the race came down to Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. As the field crossed the start-finish line and headed into Turn 1 for the final time, contact between Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray in the middle of the pack sent most of the field scattering. Hamlin was able to get ahead of Logano before they exited Turn 2, and by the time the field reached the backstretch, the caution was thrown, and Denny Hamlin was declared the winner.

“Similar to Kyle’s (Busch) championship last year, we all felt like it was a team championship, and we all played our part in it,” Hamlin said. “I think tonight was no different. Without my teammates, I wouldn’t be up here, and it’s just a great team win from my standpoint. What it is about this race that we’ve had success at, I don’t know, but the last time we did win this, we had a great Speedweeks in 2014 and finished second in the 500.”

Qualifying for the 58th running of the Daytona 500 will take place on Sunday afternoon. Coverage will begin on FOX and the Motor Racing Network (MRN) at 1 p.m. ET.

Sprint Unlimited Results:

1.) #11 Denny Hamlin

2.) #22 Joey Logano

3.) #27 Paul Menard

4.) #42 Kyle Larson

5.) #13 Casey Mears

6.) #17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

7.) #41 Kurt Busch

8.) #3 Austin Dillon

9.) #2 Brad Keselowski

10.) #16 Greg Biffle

11.) #10 Danica Patrick

12.) #20 Matt Kenseth

13.) #78 Martin Truex Jr.

14.) #1 Jamie McMurray

15.) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

16.) #19 Carl Edwards

17.) #18 Kyle Busch

18.) #43 Aric Almirola

19.) #31 Ryan Newman

20.) #5 Kasey Kahne

21.) #47 AJ Allmendinger

22.) #48 Jimmie Johnson

23.) #15 Clint Bowyer

24.) #14 Brian Vickers

25.) #4 Kevin Harvick


Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images