Denny Hamlin is loaded for bear. The winner of the 2013 season finale in Homestead, Fla., Hamlin won all three segments of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway in an event that unofficially kicked off NASCAR’s 2014 season.
Hamlin sat out four races last year when an accident at Auto Club Speedway left him with multiple fractures in his lower back. His title hopes gone, Hamlin was relegated to a test driver down the stretch for his Joe Gibbs Racing team, which fielded cars for championship contenders Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
Was that Homestead victory a sign of things to come? Judging by Saturday’s performance, it very well could be. Richard Childress Racing cars have shown the most pure speed at Daytona through offseason testing and Speedweeks — and are favorites for the the front row — but there was little doubt who had the piece to beat in race trim.
“The best car won, that’s for sure,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane. “That was survival of the fittest for sure. With three (laps) to go we were at the tail end of a small pack and it’s really tough to get a run — but this car was phenomenal.”
Phenomenal it was. Hamlin led 27 of 75 laps – easily a race high — staying in front of the mayhem that played out in the pack. And survival it was as well. With attrtition high, only eight cars lined up for a final five-lap dash to the finish.
“Passing's going to be tough no matter what aero package they have in these cars,” Hamlin continued. “The fewer the cars, the tougher it is to get runs. That's probably what saved us at the end of the race is that the few guys that were left were fighting each other versus lining up and getting a run on us once we got out there so far.”
As others battled for position over the final five circuits, Hamlin used a push from Busch to launch into the lead. He held off the small pack from there, scoring his second career Sprint Unlimited victory. Brad Keselowski, Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 5.
Full moon fever
What was learned that could translate to next weekend’s Daytona 500? Well, when a wreck eliminates all but nine cars at the halfway mark, the lessons are relative. With that in mind, the aero package for the Cup cars may have changed — with more intense racing throughout the event being the goal — but don’t expect a three-wide, nine-deep battle for 500 miles.
“The reason we were all racing around (was because we) could go anywhere we wanted to — there was more space,” Busch said of the thinned field. “Less cars, more space gives you opportunity to do stupid things, I guess you'd say. You can't make moves like that bottom to top, top to bottom, when there's 30 cars out there.”
Like last year’s Daytona 500, drivers will mind their manners until “go time.” The field ran in single-file formation through a large portion of the first segment not because drivers were pigeonholed into doing so, but because it only made sense. Winning demands one be there at the end, so why do anything too crazy, too early?
Well, actually, it did get too crazy, too early. When Kenseth dipped to the low side and clipped Logano in Segment 2, he set off a grinding crash that eliminated seven competitors.vThat left nine drivers to battle it out in what was a virtual all-star race with only a trophy and cash on the line.
Blocking and daring passes will surely shape the closing laps in the Great American Race, but don’t expect the intensity to be at a fever pitch until the final 100 miles.
Drivers involved in the second segment’s “Big One” on lap 35 included Kenseth, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and Harvick (though he was able to continue), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who smashed into his girlfriend after she had seemingly made it through the mayhem), Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.
Jimmie Johnson crashed on lap 28 of the first segment, ending his evening. Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired after tangling with Marcos Ambrose, and then the wall, with 10 laps remaining in the final segment.
By the final sprint to checkers, only Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Jamie McMurray were left to spar for the win. Expect a group three times that size to be jockeying for the Harley J. Earle trophy next week.
Smoke is Stoked
Sidelined since August with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash in Iowa, Tony Stewart was chomping at the bit in his return to racing.
Not satisfied with running a high-speed parade in the Unlimited, Stewart didn’t hold back in the event’s first segment, jumping out of line multiple times while the rest of the field seemed content to take it easy. His moves didn’t always pay off, but they served a purpose: Stewart was afforded the opportunity to work some pent-up adrenaline out of his system before the racing that really matters unfolds later in the week.
“I waited seven months to race,” Stewart later quipped. “I damn sure wasn’t going to ride around in line.”
For Stewart, the storybook ending never materialized; he was swept up in Kenseth’s crash on lap 35 and eliminated but emerged from the car under his own power and showed no ill effects.
Protect your line
The low line again appeared to be the preferred groove at Daytona. While Stewart noted that side drafting made passing difficult, there was no shortage of action. Taller rear spoilers have increased the closing rate while making cars less stable in the pack. Being out front and protecting the low groove was the most secure place to be.
“There was some interesting moments where the inside lane started going (when) guys were trying to make the outside lane go,” Kyle Busch said. “Seemed like more guys were trying to get the third lane going up against the wall, that kind of killed the middle lane a little bit, so the bottom persevered.”
Johnson used that low line to win his second Daytona 500 last season while most ran in formation on the high side. Prior to his crash on lap 28, Johnson worked his way from 18th to third by passing on the low side.
Not even the pace car was safe
In one of the evening’s most bizarre moments, the pace car caught fire while leading the field prior to Segment 3. A battery pack in the trunk used for the external caution lights overheated, causing the fire. I’ll save the comparisons between pace driver Brett Bodine and Daytona jet-dryer destroyer Juan Pablo Montoya and simply say that with a full moon presiding over an exhibition race on a plate track, was the pace car going up in flames really that surprising a development?
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro