After 499.99 miles, it all came down to 0.01 seconds – a mere SIX INCHES.
Denny Hamlin won his first career Daytona 500 in an exhilarating photo finish over Martin Truex Jr. this weekend, vaulting from sixth place to first place on the final lap to claim the victory in the 58th running of the Great American Race.
“This is the biggest race of my life […] I had no anticipations of winning this race on the white flag lap,” Hamlin said, at a loss for words as he stood next to the Harley J. Earl trophy in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth, was leading the race on the final lap, but ended up finishing 14th. So what happened?
Hamlin said he had no intentions of winning the race on the final lap, as he kept preaching throughout the race on his radio that the race needed to be won by a Toyota, and that they, meaning the JGR and JGR affiliated cars, needed to stick to the plan, as a team, and put a Toyota in victory lane.
“This was a team victory,” Hamlin said. “My teammates did an amazing job all day. This is a proud moment for everyone at Toyota. I don’t know what happened, I can’t even figure out what I did (on the final lap).”
Martin Truex Jr. came up half a foot short of pulling off what would have been the impossible a mere two years ago, with his wife battling ovarian cancer and him being kicked out of the Chase for no fault of his own. But he saw the silver lining in the runner-up finish.
“I knew it was really close,” Truex Jr. said. “I didn’t think either way, just said, ‘Man that was really close.’ I have a feeling I’ll be seeing a picture of that (finish) for a long time. I’m fine though, I’m proud of what we did.”
Furniture Row Racing and the No. 78 car formed an alliance with JGR and switched manufacturers from Chevrolet to Toyota in the offseason.
“This is just one race,” Truex went on to say of his second-place finish, “but seeing and feeling that teamwork with JGR […] We had a plan before the race and really controlled the entire race. It was great to show them they can trust me to be a part of their team. It was important to kick that relationship off right.”
Some other favorites didn’t fare too well in the race. Polesitter Chase Elliott spun his No. 24 car and suffered heavy damage as he hit the grass, forcing him to go behind the wall for repairs and finishing 37th. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., also encountered some trouble on lap 170 with 30 laps to go.
Handling was an overarching theme of the afternoon, as the No. 88 spun out on his own, hitting the inside retaining wall and suffering heavy damage. Junebug was frank in his explanation post-race, saying he “just got too loose trying to do everything at once.” He came home 36th, and his prized “Amelia”, what he nicknamed his car, was toast.
Kyle Busch finished third, Carl Edwards fifth (and was involved in an early incident with Brian Vickers), Joey Logano sixth and Kyle Larson seventh. Regan Smith was eighth, Austin Dillon ninth and Kurt Busch rounded out the top ten. Some other notable finishers included Michael McDowell (15th), Jimmie Johnson (16th), Brad Keselowski (20th), and Danica Patrick (35th).
The race was rather uneventful, as “The Big One”, a huge crash that usually happens at Daytona and Talladega, failed to occur. As Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 car wiggled and eventual race winner Denny Hamlin squeezed his No. 11 through the middle after Kenseth went up to block Hamlin, everyone thought it was going to happen there. But Kenseth saved it, Hamlin got a huge push from Kevin Harvick (who finished fourth), and the rest is history – literally.
The margin of victory, 0.01 seconds, is the closest in the history of the Daytona 500.
“This is the best. I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 is the pinnacle of our sport and I’m just proud to be here.” said Hamlin, still shaking his head in disbelief at the fact that he is a Daytona 500 champion in victory lane.
Hamlin’s mother tweeted out a picture of a note that the Daytona 500 winner wrote when he was in elementary school, starting off, “My wish is to win the Daytona 500.”
— Mary Lou Hamlin (@11mommalou) February 21, 2016
Well, Denny, pinch yourself, because this isn’t a dream. You just won the biggest race of your career. You’re a Daytona 500 champion, and always will be remembered as such.