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Denny Hamlin avoided trouble just enough and had fuel just enough to win Saturday night's wild Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona International Speedway to give Joe Gibbs Racing their third consecutive win in the annual pre-season event.
Hamlin rallied from an earlier crash and managed to fight off Joey Logano in an overtime three-lap shootout to pick up his third Sprint Unlimited win.
Paul Menard came home third, followed by Kyle Larson and Casey Mears.
Hamlin led the field to the green flag for the final restart in a green-white-checkered finish and was still out in front when the caution flag waved with one lap to go for a six-car melee that broke out in turn one.
Hamlin ran the final 57 laps on single tank of fuel and even had enough gas left for a burnout on the front straight, thanks to some brilliant pit strategy from new crew chief Mike Wheeler.
"We were very close on fuel," said Hamlin. "We drove it in which is a good sign for our fuel mileage for this Toyota, but we had a plan all along to come in and pit on lap 22 and it just so happened a caution came out as we came on pit road. It was part of our plan, it just all worked out in our favor.
"I'm so happy for Mike Wheeler to start one-for-one with a good win here at Daytona. We've got such a young team of crew chief, engineers and they all look like they're a bunch of high school kids, but they did a great job."
[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Saturday night's race was a wreckfest that left almost none of the 25-car field unscathed. When the checkered flag finally fell, 10 cars were out of the race and all but Logano and Larson had damage to their cars.
After the initial 14 laps ran caution-free, the first yellow of the night came out after Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. cut a tire and spun into the right rear of Hamlin, forcing him to pit for repairs. Ironically, Hamlin's strategy had been to ride in the back of the field in case trouble broke out in the front of the pack.
After going back under green, Hamlin – already lagging behind the field – opted to pit on lap 22 and was well behind the pack when the second caution flag waved two laps later when Brian Vickers, subbing for the injured Tony Stewart, blew a tire and spun, collecting Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
With the caution out the entire field came to pit road while Hamlin came around to take the lead for the first time. Brad Keselowski, who fought his way back to the front after his car overheated from debris on his grill, was first off pit road and lined up outside of Hamlin for the restart.
For the next 40 laps it was battle between Hamlin and Keselowski as the two traded the lead among themselves nine times.
Following a restart with six laps to go, Keselowski got shuffled out of line as Logano moved up to take second. Just three laps later, Edwards tried to come through the middle three wide and pinched Keselowski into the wall, touching off a six-car crash and setting up an overtime finish.
|It was 'pack' racing most of the night|
Back under green for the green-white-checkered finish, Logano made a strong push in the outside line and briefly edged ahead for the lead, but Hamlin powered back on the inside and held the lead by just two feet when they took the white flag.
Going into turn one, Matt Kenseth drifted up the racetrack and got clipped in the right rear by Jamie McMurray, turning Kenseth into the outside wall and sweeping up Martin Truex, Jr., Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick.
A half-lap from the finish, NASCAR threw the yellow flag, ending the race.
Logano, who had worked his way up from the last starting spot, came up one position short of his first Sprint Unlimited win.
"It was crazy like normal right? What a great race," said Logano. "The caution that came out at the end, if I was able to get that push from Larson before he got really loose, that may have gave me enough to push out in front of the 11 possibly, or at least to stay next to him for another lap and try to be door to door to cross the line. But you know, overall, speedway racing sometimes it's hard to pass for the lead for sure.
"I thought the restart was going to be a good opportunity to start next to the leader and try to jump out in front of him, and just didn't line up perfectly tonight. But that's okay. We're picking up where we left off from last year, so looking forward to the (Daytona) 500."
PAUL MENARD, NO. 27 PEAK ANTIFREEZE/MENARD CHEVROLET SS – FINISHED 3RD
WAS IT AS WILD FROM THE DRIVER’S SEAT AS IT WAS FOR THE FANS?
“It was a lot of fun. We struggled with speed by ourselves, but the car just drafted really well. I picked some wrong lanes and I picked some right lanes and in the end, the middle worked pretty well. It was a wild race and a lot of fun."
HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO PASS?
“If you had room, you could really get a run and shoot a gap, but a lot of times you were just bogged-in and you just couldn’t go anywhere. Kyle (Larson) was really good at making an extra lane in the middle and I kind of followed him for a little bit. You could get really good runs. It was just, what do with it."
KYLE LARSON, NO. 42 TARGET CHEVROLET SS – FINISHED 4TH:
WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN THIS RACE?
“I learned that I had a lot of luck in this race. I missed probably three or four really close wrecks. Hopefully I didn’t use up all my luck before next Sunday. But I’m happy with a solid finish there. I felt like we ran towards the front of the pack most of the race and it was nice to get familiar with how Chad talks on the radio and get familiar with my spotter again. It was a fun race. I was glad I was able to miss some wrecks. It normally feels like I’m in every one of them here."
CASEY MEARS, NO. 13 GEICO CHEVROLET SS – FINISHED 5TH
YOU HAD A PRETTY GOOD RUN AT THE END OF THE RACE
“I think everybody’s got ‘what if’s’ tied into this race. It was pretty crazy. But it was fun and it feels really good to be back at Daytona and back in the car again. The off-season is short. But at the same time, you’re really looking forward to getting back in the car. We came out fairly okay and we got in that one crash and caught that last caution and we were able to rebound. I’m proud of everyone. This is a good start and now we’ll get ready for the 500."
KURT BUSCH, NO. 41 MONSTER ENERGY/HAAS AUTOMATION CHEVROLET SS – FINISHED 7TH
ON HIS NIGHT:
“We were just dodging wrecks and we ended up with a flat right-rear (tire) at one point, probably from some debris. We just never really got into the rhythm to break through to get to the top four. We got up as high as fifth and then on one of the restarts when you have damage on the rear of your car it’s basically a ‘don’t follow me’ sign and everybody went the other way. I needed to be more on defense. Thanks to Monster Energy, Haas Automation it was a good debut to see everybody work together, get the pit crew out there and work in the draft. We have a much better car and the way that everything shakes up for the Daytona 500."
DALE EARNHARDT, JR., NO. 88 TAXSLAYER.COM CHEVROLET SS – FINISHED 15TH
ON HIS NIGHT:
“We got in some trouble there early and had the side ripped off. They won’t let you race without door foam and apparently, I guess maybe you have to have the door on as well. The door holds the foam in. We had to repair that and it cost us a lot of laps. If the car can run we want to be out there competing and we stayed out of the way. We want to compete and finish every lap we can finish. We learned a lot about our crash repair. When we tore the rocker panel off the car we didn’t have a way to mount the door to the car without the rocker, so we understand a little bit more about how to instant repair our car in situations like this. If we knew that stuff we probably wouldn’t have lost that many laps and might have had a chance to get some of them back and get back on the lead lap. The car was fast, just couldn’t really figure out how to get up through there and then I started seeing some opportunities and we started moving forward that thing with (Brian) Vickers happened, he had a little flat."
HOW AGGRESSIVE WAS THE RACING?
“Typical. Everybody is excited to get in the cars and be competing in a race so they are really aggressive in these races. I don’t know if we will see quite that kind of aggression in the 125’s as you will in the 500 when it comes down to the end. This race is always really aggressive. There is nothing on the line. There are a lot of accidents, torn up cars in this race pretty much every year. It’s a good one to win. When you win it you did a good job and Denny (Hamlin) did a good job tonight."
AJ ALLMENDINGER, NO. 47 KROGER/STOUFFER’S/LEAN CUISINE CHEVROLET SS – SIDELINED IN A CRASH ON LAP 58
WHAT HAPPENED FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
“I mean it’s just the way this racing is. (Jamie) McMurray tried to make a move that probably didn’t need to be made at that time, but it’s the Sprint Unlimited that is what we do. It was a tough night. We got a little bit of damage early in that first wreck. I think it was probably good to have a little wreck management to figure out what we need to do. We didn’t have quite the speed we wanted, but I kind of figured out where I needed to run overall to get some laps it was good. You don’t want to end like this, but to get Kroger and our new partners Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine out there. I thought if we could get to the end you never know what happens."
JIMMIE JOHNSON, NO. 48 LOWE’S CHEVROLET SS – SIDELINED IN CRASH ON LAP 43
‘I could see the hole closing up. I was trying to get out of it and I avoided from crashing the two guys that closed the door on me, but I got hit from behind and that’s what sent me down through the infield. I was just trying hard on one of those nights. I was certainly trying to see what I could get with and what I couldn’t by being aggressive, and we’re down.
“I was trying to back out of it. I don’t think the two guys I was trying to be in the middle of, knew that I was there and I could see the door closing. I was trying to back out of it. I did a decent job getting out of there and not spinning the No. 1 (McMurray) and the No. 13 (Mears) and I got hit from behind and that sent me down to the infield. It’s unfortunate because the hole was there and I had a good run coming up through the center but they just started closing the door on me."
WERE YOU ABLE TO LEARN A LOT TONIGHT?
“I did, for sure. This car isn’t like the other car. But being in the car and get reps and trying to set-up passes and getting onto pit road; all those things were really helpful."
YOU HAVEN’T HAD A LOT OF LUCK IN THIS RACE HERE LATELY, LATELY, HAVE YOU?
“I can’t even remember, so that must mean you’re right. I don’t want any luck in this one. I want it all next Sunday."
ARE THE CARS MORE SKITTISH, OR NOT?
“I think a lot of it is just aggression. I was around a few cars that looked loose early, but everybody criticizes us for not doing drafting practice and my guys get the set-up right every time. My car wasn’t loose, it was perfect. I did see the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) was pretty loose and the No. 1 (McMurray) looked loose. I don’t know what was going on with the crashes and cautions behind me, but I think it was just really everybody being aggressive tonight."
KEVIN HARVICK, NO. 4 BUSCH BEER CHEVROLET SS – INVOLVED IN A MULTI-CAR ACCIDENT ON LAP 24
“All I saw was the No. 14 (Brian Vickers) and once we got to the corner, he spun out. I hate it for all the guys on our Busch Chevrolet, but it was good to see the car on the race track. I know there’s been a lot of work put into this particular Busch program and it is good to see the car on the race track. I hate that it’s tore up, but I guess if you’re going to tear it up, tonight’s a better night to tear it up than next Sunday."
BRIAN VICKERS, NO. 14 MOBIL 1 CHEVROLET SS – INVOLVED IN A MULTI-CAR ACCIDENT ON LAP 24
“I cut a right-rear tire. I don’t know how it happened. The No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and I were racing hard there going across the start/finish line. The No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and I got together going four-wide early in the race. Had a little smoke for a lap and then it went away. I suspect that could have been it or I could have just run over something, there is no telling. It’s unfortunate. This Mobil 1 Chevy was just charging to the front. We went to the front early. We got kind of shuffled out then went right back to the front. I was really happy with the car. The guys, everyone at Stewart-Haas did a great job. It’s unfortunate I’m in this car because that means Tony (Stewart) is sitting at home. But I’m just doing the best I can. It’s an honor to fill this seat. I was just out there having fun until we got into the wall. It wasn’t anyone’s fault we just cut a tire. We will just go get them for the Daytona 500."
HOW HARD WAS THE HIT? HOW HEARTBREAKING IS THIS?
“It was a hard hit. They are never fun. You blow a right-rear tire, you hit driver-side at 200 (mph), but that is part of racing. That is all the risk we take. I’m fine. I feel fine. I was having fun. I was having a blast actually. It was just so much fun to get out there with those guys and rub fenders again and race hard. It’s such a fun race. I hate we are not going to be able to put this Mobil 1 Chevy in Victory Lane. I think we really had a shot at it. I’m back racing, I’m having fun and the Daytona 500 is next week. I don’t have a lot to complain about."
|6||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr||Ford||11||79||0||Running|
|13||78||Martin Truex Jr||Toyota||7||78||0||Running|
|15||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr||Chevy||23||75||0||Running|
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