Denny Hamlin takes emotional Daytona 500 victory
Denny Hamlin came to the Daytona 500 determined to honor his late car owner with a victory.
He delivered in a storybook tribute for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin won NASCAR’s biggest race for the second time in four years on Sunday, leading JGR in a 1-2-3 sweep of the podium in overtime. The race and the season have been dedicated to J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs’s eldest son, who died last month after battling a degenerative neurological disease.
J.D. Gibbs helped his father start the race team, ran it while Joe Gibbs was coaching the Washington Redskins, was a tire changer on the team’s first Daytona 500 victory, and discovered Hamlin during a test session at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Hamlin was hired to drive the No. 11, the number J.D. Gibbs wore when he played football in college.
When Hamlin stopped his car along the frontstretch to collect the checkered flag, he immediately credited J.D. Gibbs.
‘‘The whole family, they did so much for me over the course of my career, and this one is for J.D,’’ Hamlin said. ‘‘We are desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives. His legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing, and I’m proud to do this for them.’’
Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third, as JGR became the second team in NASCAR history to sweep the Daytona 500 podium. Hendrick Motorsports did it in 1997 with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, and Ricky Craven.
Busch, now winless in 14 Daytona 500s, was initially openly disappointed in falling short.
‘‘He’s got two, I've got none, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes,’’ Busch said.
But he reiterated the JGR and Toyota goal of working together to win the race and noted he didn’t have much of a shot at beating Hamlin because the field had been decimated by a flurry of late accidents.
‘‘Was trying to make sure one of us gets to Victory Lane, first and foremost,’’ Busch said. ‘‘There wasn’t enough cars out there running at the end. I don’t know how it would have played out.’’
The Cup Series slogged through three uninspiring exhibition races during Speedweeks to cause concern over a potentially disappointing main event. Jim France, who took over as chairman of NASCAR last August, used the prerace driver meeting to ask the drivers to liven up the activity. Hamlin and Chase Elliott were the rare drivers to use the bottom lane in the exhibition races, while the rest of the field ran single-file along the top.
‘‘I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today,’’ France told the field.
The drivers obeyed and delivered an action-packed and wreck-filled running of ‘‘The Great American Race.’’
There was an accident on pit road, a 21-car crash, 12 cautions, and five wrecks in the final 20 laps of regulation. The race was stopped twice for cleanup, totaling nearly 40 minutes in the final stretch.
During the second red flag, one of NASCAR’s track-drying trucks broke down while cleaning oil off the racing surface.
Hamlin and Busch alternated as the leaders during the handful of late restarts, and the final rush to the checkered flag was a push to hold off Ford driver and reigning NASCAR champion Joey Logano. The Ford camp went 1-2-3 in both of Thursday’s qualifying races and was favored to win the Daytona 500.
Logano, who started his career at Joe Gibbs Racing, settled for fourth place and also took a moment after the race to honor J.D. Gibbs.
Michael McDowell was fifth in a Ford, but he aggravated Logano by not working with him in the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
‘‘I just told him that my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win,’’ McDowell said.
Ty Dillon was sixth in the highest-finishing Chevrolet.
The race featured eight drivers making their Daytona 500 debuts, and rookie Ryan Preece, a short track racer from Berlin, Conn., was best in class with an eighth-place finish.
Ross Chastain, the eighth-generation watermelon farmer who lost his main ride for this year when the FBI raided his sponsor right before Christmas, finished 10th.
‘‘It’s luck, for sure,’’ Chastain said. ‘‘I said this morning, we’re going to use all our luck up this weekend. I might come back here for five years and crash. You just don’t know.’’
Chastain’s entire ride to Daytona was full of luck, some of it bad. He lost his ride for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team following an FBI raid on the program’s primary sponsor, DC Solar. He has patched together a deal to race this season for an Xfinity title and is scheduled to race a full Cup ride in the No. 15 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports. Chastain drove in 34 races last season for Premium — but not Daytona.
The watermelon farmer-turned-racer wanted to persuade owner Jay Robinson to drive all 36 races this season.
‘‘If we get way behind on our budget and we tear up a bunch of stuff and get below our bottom line, then you do what you've got to do,’’ Chastain said. ‘‘I'll use this to my advantage as much as I can.’’
The 26-year-old Chastain put on a heck of a show in Daytona and kept his Chevy out of danger most of the night.
He said the nerves hit a few times during the wreck fest and slid his tires a few times to avoid a big hit.
He won over some fans, and impressed his boss.
‘‘I'd like to think that’s why I was in the car, right? That’s why Jay Robinson kept me in it,’’ Chastain said. ‘‘He had offers for other people to put in it but he said he really thought if he kept me in it, he would make his money back.’’
Chastain was one of eight Daytona 500 rookies in the field — and one of two in the top 10. Ryan Preece, who built his resume on the modified circuit, was eighth in the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing.
‘‘A lot of you guys might not know me,’’ Preece said, ‘‘but I'm from a racing background.’’