Sunday, February 21, 2016

Denny Hamlin Wins Daytona 500 by a Nose

Credit: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images  
By Lisa Janine Cloud

Denny Hamlin earned the title of “Daytona 500 Champion” Sunday. The fact that he did so in a photo finish by the smallest margin in race history -- 0.010 seconds -- over Martin Truex Jr. matters not to Hamlin.

On the other hand, those few feet do matter to Truex Jr., who said after the race that he’s “just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, I suppose, the rest of my life.”

Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Hamlin became only the fifth driver to win both the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500 in the same year. No lesser luminaries than Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, and Jeff Gordon accomplished that feat, as did former JGR driver Dale Jarrett, who was the last Gibbs driver to win the Great American Race back in 1993. Of note, Jarrett also gave the same combination of wins to the Ford team of Robert Yates Racing in 1996.

Hamlin was, understandably, excited about the victory, and howled with glee as he entered the media center for his post-race interview. 

"It's the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” exclaimed Hamlin. “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.” 

“FedEx has been a huge supporter of me throughout my career,” Hamlin continued. “It's very unusual that the driver and the sponsor have such a great relationship like we have. They stuck by us. They're so heavily invested in myself and this sport and this race team.”

His rookie crew chief, Mike Wheeler, shared Hamlin's excitement, but in a more low-key manner.

"It's pretty crazy, that's for sure," Wheeler said. "You work your butt off all these years trying to get to this spot. You put in the hours. You work your guts out trying to be the best. Finally have the opportunity to be the crew chief, lead the team, it's really satisfying to see everybody so happy, sponsors so happy between Toyota and FedEx and everybody. Seeing Denny say it's his biggest race, biggest thing he's got, makes me happy."          

Hamlin’s 11th try at the Great American Race also gave Toyota their first Daytona 500 victory, one that an emotional David Wilson, president of TRD, called “our single biggest race in our company's history.” Wilson added, “I'll put it in front of the Indy 500, which was a pretty special one back in 2003.” 

Despite the hype that surrounded Chevy drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time winner of the Harley J. Earl trophy, and rookie polesitter Chase Elliott, who won Saturday night in the Xfinity Series Powershares QQQ 300, Toyotas dominated the race, while Earnhardt and Elliott crashed in separate incidents, finishing 36th and 37th, respectively.

Hamlin was out front for 95 of Toyota’s total of 158 laps led, with teammates Matt Kenseth on point for 40 and Kyle Busch for 19 laps. 

Toyotas also finished second, third and fifth, including Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, respectively.

For Toyota to follow up their 2015 Sprint Cup Championship season with the Daytona 500 championship doesn’t bode well for the competition. Toyota drivers took 14 of the 36 race-winning trophies in 2015, along with the Sprint Cup Championship, by putting Toyotas in four of the top-five finishing positions.

Wilson explained that the Toyota contingent had a plan and executed it well.

“Today was the quintessential, perhaps, example of what that teamwork has paid off in,” he stated. “I am truly impressed, proud, moved by what our drivers did, our teams did together. We had a plan. When we went out in practice, I think it was Saturday afternoon, the five Toyotas lined up, we were the top of the timing and scoring. We realized that our five cars working together could truly do something special on Sunday.

“... Our teams, our drivers, had the discipline and the trust in each other to execute that plan to a T. To come all the way to the white flag, 1‑2‑3‑4‑5, and then it was a race,” Wilson said. “Today was a special day for Toyota and a special day for Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row, our new partner.”

Hamlin, who added win number 27 to his Sprint Cup resume, concurred.

“This is a total team effort from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota,” Hamlin said. “Martin Truex and those guys – all of our cars up front at the end. 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 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.”

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