DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Denny Hamlin towed the outside line of cars to the checkered flag in Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opener Sunday at Daytona International Speedway to claim his first win in NASCAR’s biggest race.
“This is the best,” Hamlin said. “I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 is — as a kid what you — this is the pinnacle of our sport, and I’m just proud to be here.”
Hamlin beat fellow-Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. by 0.01-second, the closest-ever Daytona 500 finish. It was the first Daytona 500 win for Toyota.
“I just remember pulling up in front of the 4 (Kevin Harvick) and him giving me a push and not letting off when he was pushing and, ultimately, that was the push to the victory for us. I know we got to the outside of the 18 (Kyle Busch), the 78 (Truex), and then the 20 (Matt Kenseth) came up to block high and I saw that the middle was going to be the only way I could get around both of them and we cleared the 20 and drag raced with the 78.”
Toyota claimed the top-three spots in the finishing order and four of the top five positions, with Kyle Busch finishing third and Carl Edwards fifth. Chevrolet driver Kevin Harvick was fourth.
“This is a team victory,” Hamlin said. “My teammates did an amazing job all day working together, all the Toyotas. This is a proud moment for everyone at Toyota, FedEx (Hamlin’s primary sponsor). I don’t know where that came from. I don’t know what happened. I can’t even figure out what I did, but it all just came together. This wouldn’t be possible if this wasn’t Toyotas sticking together all race long.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Hamlin, Busch and Kenseth, along with corporate teammate Truex of Furniture Row Racing, dominated the top four positions throughout much of the race, mostly with Hamlin out front.
“This was 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.
Hamlin led nearly half of the 200-lap race. JGR teammate Edwards spent much of the race a lap down after hitting the wall on lap 57.
Kenseth was temporarily separated from the group when he had trouble getting out of his pit stall as Regan Smith was pulling into the stall right in front of him during a lap 119 caution.
Kenseth eventually caught back up to his teammates before Hamlin gave up positions to take four tires instead of two during a yellow flag with 30 laps to go.
Pole sitter Chase Elliott was joined up front by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt at the start of the race, with Earnhardt taking the lead on lap four. After losing the lead, Elliott slipped back to the back half of the top 10 before spinning into the infield grass and damaging the front end of his car on lap 19. He returned to the race 40 laps later.
“I’m not sure (what happened),” Elliott said. “Just got turned around there off of four. 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.”
After leading 15 laps, Earnhardt lost the lead to Busch and drifted back several positions. He wound up having his own wreck with 30 laps to go.
“It caught me by surprise,” Earnhardt said. “I was trying to side-draft a guy beside me and, boy, it pinned the right front. 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. We’ve had a rocket all week, but it was in single-car runs and at the night races, the car has handled great.”
Joey Logano finished sixth, Kyle Larson seventh, Smith was eighth, Austin Dillon ninth, and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10. Kenseth wound up 14th after leading at the white flag.