WHAT A FINISH: Denny Hamlin Edges Martin Truex Jr. In Closest Daytona 500 Finish Ever

by February 21, 2016

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin edged Martin Truex Jr. by 0.010 seconds to claim his first career Daytona 500 victory on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

The finish that was the closest in Daytona 500 history was not only the first for Hamlin, but it was the first time that Toyota has ever been to Victory Lane in the prestigious season opener.

“This is very difficult for me to put in words,” said TRD president, David Wilson said. “I cannot articulate adequately what this means to Toyota.

“I’ll start by saying it’s our single biggest race in our company’s history.  I’ll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003.”

Prior to Sunday, Dale Jarrett captured Joe Gibbs Racing’s last Daytona 500 victory back in 1993. Hamlin now joins Jarrett, along with Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon as the only drivers to win the Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 in the same year.

“This is a total team effort from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, Martin Truex and those guys – all of our cars up front at the end,” Hamlin said. “I said with two to go that we have to get the team victory no matter what it takes and I essentially was trying to go up there and block the 4 (Kevin Harvick) to keep him from getting to those guys, but he gave me such a strong push I just went with it and we ended up with a victory.”

The 58th running of the Daytona 500 saw 20 lead changes between 15 different drivers. As always, everyone anticipates the “big one” at the restrictor plate tracks, but on Sunday, that moment never came; however, there were six cautions.

The first caution came out on lap 20 when pole-sitter, Chase Elliott lost control exiting Turn 4 and spun across the nose of Carl Edwards. Elliott’s splitter dug into the dirt when he slid through the grass, destroying the frontend of the No. 24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet. Regan Smith also spun down the frontstretch but was able to save his car from hitting the wall.

“I’m not sure, just got turned around there off of four,” Elliott said. “Got in the middle and got loose. Lost it and spun out. I hate it for everybody at less than 20 laps in and have something dumb like that happen. I apologize to my guys. We will try and get back out there I guess and make some laps.”

Almost identical to Elliott’s spin, Brian Vickers who’s subbing in for Tony Stewart spun while exiting Turn 4 as well, bringing out the caution on lap 57. In an effort to avoid the spinning car of Vickers, Trevor Bayne got into the back of Carl Edwards, sending him into the outside wall.

Chris Buescher and Matt DiBenedetto got together in Turn 2 to bring out the caution on lap 93. Both drivers were competing in their first Daytona 500. The two drivers made extremely hard contact with the outside wall, but thankfully the two drivers were able to walk away unharmed thanks to NASCAR’s safety innovations.

“I really saw nothing,” Buescher said. “Matt was in there with us and he apologized, and I appreciate that.  I just hate it for Love’s Travel Stops coming on board for our first Daytona 500, and to leave it like this is not ideal by any means. We had a fast race car. I was having a blast out there. The handling was tough. We were fighting loose-in, loose-off, got tight on that last run, but it was a blast. I was having so much fun I hate that we’re standing here right now.”

One of the favorites heading into the race weekend was Dale Earnhardt Jr. He won his Can-Am Duel on Thursday and had been fast all weekend long. However, on lap 171, the caution came out as Earnhardt Jr. lost control exiting Turn 4 and slammed hard into the inside wall just prior to sliding into the tri-oval on the frontstretch.

“I just got loose,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve been really working on the balance of the car. I’ve been pushing real bad all day, especially off of Turn 4. We just got it really free.  We took two tires there and just didn’t have overall grip I was hoping for. I was aggressive trying to side draft guys and move forward. We were making some ground on the leaders a little bit so that was looking pretty good because the outside line really hadn’t been doing anything all day. Just busted my butt there. Driver mistake.”

The sixth and final caution of the afternoon came out on lap 185 when Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick got together racing down the backstretch. Biffle went to dive underneath Patrick, and she tried to block him from making the pass. Biffle shot into the outside wall, and Patrick went flying through the grass. Paul Menard was also caught up in the accident.

“It was a pretty rough day for us,” Biffle said. “We got a flat trying to make the outside groove push to the front and couldn’t get our lap back and then later the 10 came across our nose there. It was unfortunate but it happens. I don’t know if she was trying to block me or didn’t know I was there but it happens. Tough day for sure. I am proud of my guys for all their work this week. We had a pretty good week minus these issues today.”

On the last lap of the race, Matt Kenseth had a commanding lead with Martin Truex Jr. and the Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards pushing him on the low side of the track. By the time the field reached Turn 3, Kevin Harvick had pushed Denny Hamlin all the way up to the front of the pack on the high line. Kenseth went up the track to block, but Hamlin chose to go up the middle between him and Truex Jr. Kenseth nearly wrecked, but that move left the door open for Truex Jr. to jump out in front.

“I was kind of content to stay where I was till off of four just because I wasn’t sure who was going to be on that outside line.” Truex Jr. said. “I knew I had Kyle behind me. They got outside of Kyle off of turn two pretty early.

“So it was like I either jump in ‑‑ at that time it was Harvick out there, I either jump in front of him or stay with Matt and Kyle. We worked so well together all day, I felt like I needed to stay in line until at least the front straightaway.”

Truex Jr. continued and said, “That was going to be my plan. You know, I feel like the move that Matt made is what gave me a chance of winning the race. I don’t think that I was in a position to make a move because Kyle was behind me. I think he was planning on staying with me. So I couldn’t just shootout before turn four without those guys jumping all over us.”

Coming to the finish line, it was a drag race between Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin. In his 11th attempt at winning the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota was able to edge ahead seal the deal.

“It’s the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” Hamlin said. “I haven’t got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself. It’s just the circumstances, J.D. Gibbs, who found me about 12, 13 years ago, it’s his birthday today, he’s been so pivotal to myself and my team and supporting me for the past 11 years.”

Kyle Busch finished third, followed by Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, who overcame two accidents. Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Regan Smith, Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-10.

Denny Hamlin now leads Martin Truex Jr. by five points in the championship point standings.

Up next on the schedule for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, February 28. Coverage for the race will broadcast live on FOX and the Performance Racing Network (PRN) at 1 p.m. ET.

Daytona 500 Results:

1.) #11 Denny Hamlin

2.) #78 Martin Truex Jr.

3.) #18 Kyle Busch

4.) #4 Kevin Harvick

5.) #19 Carl Edwards

6.) #22 Joey Logano

7.) #42 Kyle Larson

8.) #7 Regan Smith

9.) #3 Austin Dillon

10.) #41 Kurt Busch

11.) #31 Ryan Newman

12.) #43 Aric Almirola

13.) #5 Kasey Kahne

14.) #20 Matt Kenseth

15.) #59 Michael McDowell

16.) #48 Jimmie Johnson

17.) #1 Jamie McMurray

18.) #27 Paul Menard

19.) #21 Ryan Blaney

20.) #2 Brad Keselowski

21.) #47 AJ Allmendinger

22.) #17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

23.) #38 David Gilliland

24.) #44 Brian Scott

25.) #95 Ty Dillon

26.) #14 Brian Vickers

27.) #46 Michael Annett

28.) #6 Trevor Bayne

29.) #23 David Ragan

30.) #83 Michael Waltrip

31.) #32 Bobby Labonte

32.) #13 Casey Mears

33.) #15 Clint Bowyer

34.) #16 Greg Biffle

35.) #10 Danica Patrick

36.) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

37.) #24 Chase Elliott

38.) #26 Robert Richardson Jr.

39.) #34 Chris Buescher

40.) #93 Matt DiBenedetto


Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images