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2014 Daytona 500: Hamlin runner-up in rain-soaked opener

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Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin nearly completed his Sprint Cup Series trifecta at Daytona International Speedway, crossing the finish line as the runner-up to Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday’s rain-soaked season opener for the series. Hamlin won the non-points Sprint Unlimited on Saturday, February 15th as well as his Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Thursday, February 20th.

Hamlin’s JGR teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished sixth and 19th, respectively.

Hamlin started the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry in the fourth position Sunday before the rains came just 38 laps into the race. The six-hour-plus rain delay led to a restart under the lights, but Hamlin was having radio difficulties on the restart, limiting his communication with his spotter. In spite of the radio problems, Hamlin remained in the top 10 throughout the night.

“Any other year I probably would have been like jumping up and down,” said Hamlin of his finish. “We can hardly finish these races much less have a shot at a victory…I felt like our car wasn't as strong as the week progressed. The competition definitely caught up, for sure. Then, honestly, me not being able to drive to my ability because I was being conservative, trying to spot for myself, that's not a way to race. Track position was so important, I couldn't come in for a radio change when it went totally dead. You know, I'll be happy tomorrow, I think. But right now a little disappointed.”

Kenseth’s No. 20 Dollar General Toyota started next to Hamlin in third, with pit road problems causing a headache for the two-time 500 winner. Heavy traffic in the pits early in the race caused Kenseth to spin backward into his pit stall; his crew barely missed a beat as they performed the pit stop on the reversed car. He restarted the race post-rain delay just outside the top 10, but made his way back toward the leaders when the green-white-checkers finish ended the race.

Busch’s No. 18 M&Ms Peanut Toyota had an up-and-down day – literally. He started 37th after problems in his qualifying race on Thursday, but just five laps into the race was looking at the top 10. Busch led the field at the red flag on Lap 39, but his pit stop just after the race restarted put him back in the pack again, as he dragged an air hose out of his pit stall; the ensuing penalty left him a lap down. It took a while, but Busch did finally earn a Lucky Dog with the caution on Lap 146, and put himself right back in the thick of things. The end of the race looked like it was going to be a strong top-10 run for all three JGR cars, until Busch got caught up in the final-turn “big one”, relegating him to a 19th-place finish.

“I thought we had a pretty good M&M’s Peanut Camry,” said Busch on his website. “We had the early penalty and we were fortunate to get the lucky dog, and here at Daytona, that puts you right back in it. I was able to work my way back up there, but I didn’t want to see that last caution. On the restart, we got shuffled out, but I was still hoping we could bring home a decent finish. I think the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was on the inside of me and came up and got us in the right rear and kept us from a good finish.”

Brad Keselowski finished third, followed by Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

The Sprint Cup Series heads to Phoenix International Raceway for next weekend’s The Profit on CNBC 500 on Sunday, March 2nd. Keep up with the action at joegibbsracing.com.

Unless noted, quotes in this piece provided by NASCAR.

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