“I didn’t know,” said Denny Hamlin at the podium. “I thought it was almost a tie.”
A tie. That’s what it looked like as Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.streaked across the NASCAR finish line at Daytona International Speedway. 500 miles of competition and yet Sunday the winner wound up getting determined by a matter of inches. The 0.010-second margin of victory, awarded to Hamlin via a photo finish captured by the cameras, is the closest in the 58 editions of the Daytona 500. It even beat the one between Lee Petty and Johnny Rutherford in 1959, well before computers and instant replay where it took days to determine who actually won the race.
“It's crazy, it happened so fast,” Hamlin said. “I literally had to watch it back to figure out what in the world happened.”
Millions of NASCAR fans have also watched it back, along with millions more on national news. Here; why don’t you watch it again for yourself.
It’s literally a wish come true for Hamlin, finally victorious in the Great American Race running the No. 11 on his 11th try. But in reality, it’s been about a 27-year wait. Back in second grade, the driver wrote on a school project about a “wish” he’d like to have granted. Hamlin’s choice? Take home the Daytona 500 trophy in style, winning with his best friend as crew chief and NASCAR engine guru Ernie Elliott as his tire changer. The goal, he said was to do so by February 1998.
“I missed it a little bit on the date,” he joked. “It’s like a story that you couldn’t have written a better ending on our week.”
It also couldn’t be a better ending for NASCAR, concluding a strong opening to its refurbished $400 million renovation project; Joe Gibbs Racing, who earned its first Daytona victory since 1993; and Toyota, who picked up its first-ever victory in the Great American Race. It’s the biggest win of Hamlin’s career, just his second “major” (he owns a Southern 500 victory) and almost certainly propels him into the sport’s 10-race Chase playoff.
But he also couldn’t have done it alone. Find out how as we go "Through The Gears" following a phenomenal Daytona 500...
FIRST GEAR: Toyota’s Teamwork Makes All the Difference
Racing, on paper is an individual sport. No one scores extra points for pushing a teammate across the finish line; it’s an individual driver, not a four-car organization that earns a title trophy. That’s why what we saw on Sunday during the closing laps of Daytona was rare. An entire four-car team, Joe Gibbs Racing, combined with its satellite program of Furniture Row Racing to stay in line at the front of the draft. Matt Kenseth, Truex, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Carl Edwardsrode around stuck like superglue in a nose-to-tail alignment that kept all challengers at bay.
“It was cool to see the teamwork,” said Truex, who said the drivers discussed a plan after practice. “We felt like if we could ever get lined up, we could control the race, pull away from the field, kind of stay out of the big part of the pack, where we didn't want to be in a danger zone.”
That’s exactly what happened, leaving rivals like Kevin Harvick and Joey Loganohelpless to push by the Toyota freight train down the stretch. For the longest time, it actually looked like Kenseth would take his third 500 but an ill-timed block of Hamlin took the air off the No. 20 car. It was a tremendous save, Kenseth able to keep from wrecking in front of the field but the loss of speed dropped him down to 14th.
“They don’t get more crushing than that,” Kenseth said although he took time to congratulate his teammate. Indeed, all the JGR guys felt like they won as a team in what Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson called the “single-most important race” in the manufacturer’s history.
“When we came into the sport,” he said, “We struggled. We were not ready. We didn't know. So it's taken time for us to collectively build an organization with our team partners that is capable of winning races and competing for championships.
“Today was the quintessential, perhaps, example of what that teamwork has paid off in.”
It also keeps Toyota atop the sport after winning last season’s title. With the speed and synergy shown during Speedweeks JGR and friends will be a force to be reckoned with again in 2016.
SECOND GEAR: Second Place in This Case is NOT the First Loser
For Truex, Sunday proved an agonizing defeat; a few more inches here, a sidedraft there and it’s the No. 78 car sitting in victory lane. The second-place finish, two years ago would have left Truex in a state of mental disrepair.
Nearly losing your girlfriend of a decade to cancer has a way of bringing perspective. Fighting for your career and rebuilding it with an underdog, single-car team reminds one of how special a career in the Cup Series really is. So, despite a difficult pill to swallow Truex spent his post-race presser showcasing to everyone how to handle an ending like this one: with humor and class.
“I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to win,” he said. “But I realize the position I'm in, the opportunities I'm going to have this year. I'm going to have a lot more opportunities to win races. I feel like we did everything right today to put ourselves in position to win. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they don't.”
Keep in mind this Furniture Row Racing team changed manufacturers this offseason as well as alliances. They’re just three months removed from a final four appearance in the Chase, a deep playoff run that can often distract a team from preparing for the following year. For Truex to start this strong, this quickly is a great sign the No. 78 team is no bunch of one-year wonders. There’s only one downside.
“Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, I suppose,” he joked. “The rest of my life...”
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt, Elliott Part of Horror Story for Hendrick Motorsports
Where JGR shined, helping Toyotas lead 158 of 200 laps, Hendrick slumped. That’s even with Chase Elliottstarting from the top spot, the youngest pole winner ever in 58 Daytona 500s. Instead, this 20-year-old chased the wrong type of history, the first driver inside the garage flirting with a last-place finish after his No. 24 simply snapped around off of turn 4. It was the first casualty of a rough lesson learned across the board for HMS: handling at Daytona becomes far more important during a daytime race with temperatures peaking in the mid-70s.
“Got in the middle and got loose,” Elliott said. “Lost it and spun out. I hate it for everybody, less than 20 laps in and have something dumb like that happen. I apologize to my guys.”
Elliott wound up 37th, 40 laps off the pace and one position behind teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.Earnhardt’s “Amelia” car had strong speed but also lost it in much the same place, spinning off turn 4 and slamming the wall hard. Just like that, a piece of equipment so strong Earnhardt talked to owner Rick Hendrick about putting it in a museum upon retirement will officially be put out to pasture.
“I was trying to side-draft a guy beside me and boy, it pinned the right front,” Earnhardt said. “All the downforce there. We have been working on the balance all day. That was our problem. We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today.”
Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnsonhad shot up the field, leading the race after starting from the rear with a backup car. All seemed smooth but then the No. 48 team suffered through a surprise penalty; Chad Knaus’ crew was busted for jumping over the wall too soon. While Knaus yelled at NASCAR officials Johnson lost all-important track position, never got it back and was left to wonder what might have been. Running 16th, paired with Kasey Kahne’s 13th that meant HMS went 0-for-4 on top-10 results here for the first time since 2009.
FOURTH GEAR: Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s certainly hard to argue with the closest Daytona 500 finish in history. Ratings won’t be out until Monday but you’d have to think the ending catapults NASCAR to a strong start with the new rules package debuting next weekend at Atlanta.
Were Sunday’s woes with handling a sneak preview of what we’ll see? Fourth-place finisher Kevin Harvicksure seemed to think so.
"Well I think the racing is definitely going to be different. I think Atlanta was going to be slip and slide anyway,” he said. “But I think as you look at the new package, it is probably going to be a lot worse. I think the drivers are looking forward to it and will put on a great show for the fans."
Handling back in the hands of the drivers? Cars that fall off over a long green-flag run? Actual skill involved rather than just hitting the accelerator pedal and running wide open? My guess is lots of fans will want to sign up for that.
Danica Patrick's struggles continue at Daytona. After a strong run early, a penalty for men jumping over the wall too soon (like Jimmie Johnson’s team got) left her a lap off the pace. A few laps later, Patrick was battling with Greg Biffle for a spot when she came down on top of the No. 16 Ford, slumping to 35th and ruining her day. Since winning the Daytona 500 pole in 2013 Patrick, one of the sport’s more marketable, well-known athletes hasn’t been able to crack the top 20 in this race. But hey, at least those Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars are mighty tasty... Brian Vickers should be commended for fighting back after an early spin. He struggled getting comfortable in the No. 14 car all week long subbing for Tony Stewart and was outside the top 30 for a large portion of the race. But by the end, he’d used the high lane to get himself back in contention and gave it all he had before dropping to 26th. “The low lane was just so strong,” he explained. “No one could make up any ground.” As for Stewart, he popped on air for the FOX broadcast to chat about his injury and subsequent return. The next step, apparently is an x-ray on March 9 to determine progress post-back surgery. “I’m feeling a lot better,” he said. “And I’m itching to get back to the racetrack.” ... Mark Martin, runner-up in his own heartbreaking finish in the ’07 Daytona 500 popped up on Twitter to support Martin Truex Jr. “I feel your pain,” he said. “But you are a class act and great competitor.”
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)