Denny Hamlin mounted a last-lap charge by taking the outside line on Daytona International Speedway’s famed high banks Sunday, and nipped Martin Truex Jr. by 0.010 seconds to win the 58th annual Daytona 500. It was the closest margin of victory in race history since the advent of electronic scoring and gave Toyota its first DAYTONA 500 championship.
Hamlin, driving the No. 11 FedEx Toyota, came out of Turn 4 with serious momentum and benefiting from a strong push from Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet). Hamlin rapidly closed on his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate – Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Dollar General Toyota) and Truex (No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota) who were running 1-2 on the inside. Kenseth slid over to block but lost control and drifted wider, toward the wall, leaving Hamlin clear to race Truex to the stripe.
Truex had inherited the race lead when Kenseth tried the block, and appeared headed toward the victory. But just before the two Toyotas crossed the line, Hamlin apparently got an aerodynamic boost from a “side-draft” off Truex’s car, to eke out the victory.
“We cleared the 20 and drag raced with the 78,” Hamlin said. “This is a total team effort from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, Martin Truex and those guys – all of our cars up front at the end. I said with two to go that we have to get the team victory no matter what it takes and I essentially was trying to go up there and block [Harvick] to keep him from getting to those guys, but he gave me such a strong push I just went with it and we ended up with a victory.
“This is the best … I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 … as a kid it’s what you [dream of winning] – this is the pinnacle of our sport and I’m just proud to be here.”
Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s 75 Toyota), also of Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), finished third. JGR driver Carl Edwards (No. 19 ARRIS Toyota) finished fifth, while the final JGR driver, two-time Daytona 500 champion Kenseth, settled for 14th.
Another two-time champion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had become a heavy favorite in the days leading up to the Daytona 500, after finishing third-fastest in the original qualifying session and then winning one of Thursday’s Can-Am Duel qualifying races. He started third Sunday and led 15 of the first 100 laps. Fighting an ill-handling car (No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet) throughout the afternoon, he was nonetheless running in the top 10 when he spun out on Lap 170 coming out of Turn 4 and crashed into the inside retaining wall.
“We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today,” said Earnhardt, who finished 36th.
The anticipation surrounding polesitter Chase Elliott’s Daytona 500 outlook dissipated early. A day after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series season-opening race, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie spun his No. 24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet coming off Turn 4 and went sliding into the grass bordering the frontstretch. The car dug into the turf, severely damaging the front end.
“I just lost it,’ Elliott said.
Elliott’s crew went to work and got the car back into the race – 40 laps down. Elliott finished 37th.