The Weekend That Was: Daytona 500by Kyle Pokrefky February 22, 2016
And just like that, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is back in full swing following another running of the Daytona 500.
Following a grueling 199 laps, Denny Hamlin was declared the winner in a duel to the finish with Martin Truex Jr. in what could only be described as a finish for the ages.
While the finish will make its presence known in highlight reels for years to come, other stories arose out of the 500 outside of the final lap.
In case you weren’t able to follow along with what went down at Daytona International Speedway, or if you forgot to set your DVRs (like your race winner), here’s what you missed from Sunday.
22 Years of Trying, 22 Years of Frustration, Joe Gibbs Racing Returns to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500
In the past five years, Joe Gibbs Racing has showcased their plate racing ability by winning in Speedweeks’ preliminary events, the Sprint Unlimited and Can-Am Duels, yet they haven’t been able to close the deal in the Daytona 500 – a drought that plagued them since 1993.
Hamlin shattered the team’s winless streak in the Great American Race yesterday in a dominant performance that featured the No. 11 FedEx Toyota out front for 95 of 200 laps.
The Gibbs organization as a whole flat-out laid a beating on the rest of the field, combining to lead 154 of the total laps.
For the Coach, the feeling of having the Daytona monkey off of his back must be quite relieving heading into the meat of the 2016 season.
Their dominance of the race wasn’t out of the ordinary (they did the same thing in 2013), but to close the deal in the biggest race of the season just makes their run that dates to the end of 2015 that much sweeter.
With New JGR Alliance, Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing Off to a Quick Start
Coming across the finish line a mere hundredth of a second behind Hamlin was Furniture Row Racing’s Truex Jr., who, despite feeling the agony of defeat, should be feeling confident heading into the rest of the season.
The No. 78 team forged a new alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing over the offseason that was coupled with a move to Toyota that was announced late last season.
Truex Jr. ran well throughout the entire race and sat solidly in the top-five for over half of the event, biding his time and waiting to make his move.
The trend in recent restrictor plate races hasn’t truly yielded many surprise winners and judging from recent results, the best drivers in the championship generally gravitate towards the top of the finishing order.
Of course, Daytona is always viewed as a bit of an anomaly as every team starts out fresh, however, the speed Furniture Row Racing showcased amongst their Gibbs allies has to have the team feeling good moving ahead.
Unexpected Winner to Come out of Daytona? Kyle Larson
The past two Daytona 500s have not been kind to Kyle Larson as his debut in the Great American Race in 2014 and his sophomore effort in 2015 both ended in crashes.
For this year’s running, a win would’ve obviously been preferred, but the 2014 Rookie of the Year was just hoping to see the checkered flag while on the lead lap.
Larson did just that in this year’s 500, keeping his nose clean throughout the race and coming home with a seventh-place finish.
The driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet has come agonizingly close to making the Chase in the last two years, but missed the cutoff on points both times.
With a low-downforce package becoming the new normal for the Sprint Cup Series this year, more races should play out to Larson’s advantage this year and could provide the catalyst to finally deliver the 23-year-old his first race win and Chase berth.
If for some reason he doesn’t have a win come Chase time, his solid Daytona 500 performance sets him up for a better points run in 2016 compared to his last two seasons.
There is No True Rookie Favorite Heading into Atlanta
Sunday didn’t prove to be a particularly great day for this year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders in the Sprint Cup Series.
Daytona 500 pole-sitter Chase Elliott went for a ride through the infield grass in the first corner of the race while defending XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher found the wall (and subsequently the garage) on Lap 91.
Ryan Blaney winded up taking the top rookie honors for the Great American Race, however, what appeared to be a strong run going for him early ended up falling apart as Blaney came home with a 19th-place finish.
Brian Scott, the second-highest finishing rookie, brought his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford home with a 24th-place finish.
While Blaney may be leading the rookie standings heading into Atlanta Motor Speedway, Buescher and Elliott should come roaring back with a vengeance.
Following Atlanta, we should have a better picture as to who the likely favorite for the title for the top rookie will be.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images