Denny Hamlin won a wild crash filled Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona International Speedway Saturday night. Hamlin was dominant in all three segments and survived a race of attrition as only eight of the original 18 starters finished the 75 lap exhibition race.
Thanks to a fan vote, final practice speeds determined the starting lineup giving the pole to Hamlin and leaving Jimmie Johnson last in the 18 car field.
Hamlin took an early lead while the field wasted no time mixing it up behind him. Hamlin led until lap 3 when Jamie McMurray shot by bringing the rest of the field single file with him and leaving Hamlin on the bottom all alone; he fell in 13th.
McMurray held station over Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick as the lead group fell into single file line. Tony Stewart in his first race since August of last year, made aggressive moves on the bottom from eighth place but couldn’t move forward. On lap 10, Busch dove to the inside and took over the top spot.
Behind the leaders on lap 13 Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards led a line on the bottom that tried to move toward the front. McMurray soon dropped down and took over the lead of the second line in front of Johnson. On lap 16, Harvick dropped to the bottom and took the lead with McMurray and Johnson close behind. Edwards began to battle Johnson for second leaving Harvick to wonder who to block for the lead. Johnson took second by lap 18 with Hamlin third and Danica Patrick fourth. Joey Logano led a line on the high side but by lap 21 the field broke out into two lines and was battling for position behind leader Harvick.
McMurray pitted on lap 22 with overheating issues due to a grill filled with debris. On the track, Hamlin took the lead from Harvick as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fell into third. On lap 25 Stenhouse took second on the high side and was looking for the lead. Johnson was soon in the mix and by lap 27 was second. The first segment ended on lap 28 when Johnson spun exiting turn 4; Johnson’s Chevy was sent hard into the inside SAFER barrier just before the entrance to pit road. He would slide to a stop on the infield grass and was uninjured; his night however was done. Replays showed no contact Johnson simply got loose exiting turn 4.The DNF marked the third straight time Johnson had failed to finish the Sprint Unlimited.
The rest of the field came in for pit stops with Brad Keselowski taking the lead after a fuel only stop; he was followed by Jeff Gordon who also got fuel only.
It was a drag race between Keselowski and Gordon on the restart. Keselowski held the advantage on the high side with Hamlin close behind; soon Stewart was trying to make a run on the inside. On lap 34 though, Hamlin was sparring with Keselowski for the lead.
On lap 35 the pack behind the leaders exploded into a melee. It started when Matt Kenseth slowed just past the start finish line; Kenseth came down into Logano setting off a crash that involved seven cars including Stewart, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Edwards, and Gordon. Replays showed that Keselowski slowed in front of Kenseth causing Kenseth to slow and move down into Logano.
“It looked like it might work out because Matt got down there and got turned,” Edwards said. “I thought maybe he’ll stay low, but Tony got turned right and just clipped me and that was it. This race is about aggression, it’s about going out there and just keeping your foot down and racing hard and we all know that there is about a 50 percent chance that this could happen.”
The cars that avoided the crash were brought down pit road and parked in their respective pit stalls. NASCAR allowed teams to make repairs despite displaying red flag.
A total of nine cars came back on the track when the yellow was put out after a nine minute red flag. Hamlin led, Keselowski was second; Kyle Busch was third. Two of the nine cars, Harvick and Logano had been involved in the big crash. Keselowski took the lead by lap 42 while Hamlin and Logano contested second. Logano shot past for the lead a lap later; Hamlin settled into second, Keselowski third.
On lap 26, Hamlin was joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and soon the duo went to the lead. Kyle Busch fell into third. Logano feel back to eighth. He didn’t stay there long and soon was headed back to the front leading a line on the inside. With three laps to go in the second segment, the pack behind Hamlin and Earnhardt began to mix it up. Soon Keselowski was contesting Earnhardt for second. He caught Earnhardt and passed for second and set his sights on the lead. Earnhardt was sent backwards to seventh. The caution came out ending the segment with Hamlin keeping the lead, Keselowski second, Kyle Busch third, McMurray fourth and Marcos Ambrose fifth.
Fans voted to set the starting order for the final segment by a mandatory two tire pit stop. Hamlin won the race off pit road with McMurray second, Logano third, Earnhardt fourth, and Ambrose fifth. Before the field could take the green one of the oddest incidents in recent memory occurred when the pace car caught fire exiting turn 2. They were able to stop and no one was injured but the incident extended the yellow flag.
When the green flag fell for the final 20 laps, McMurray went to the lead on the high side with help from Earnhardt. Earnhardt went to the lead when he blocked Ryan Newman and was pushed to the front. Third place was swapped between Busch and Logano with Keselowski making himself part of the mix. On lap 59 Busch was spun in between turn 3 and 4 but was able to save it; replays showed Busch coming down on the nose of Keselowski and spinning out. He was able to continue with only minor damage.
During the caution, Busch, Hamlin and Newman pitted.
Earnhardt led to the green on the high side with 12 laps to go. Logano with his teammate Keselowski close behind, contested for the lead and soon went to the front. Logano was able to stretch out his lead for a lap, but it wasn’t long before the pack caught him.
As that was happening, Earnhardt, who had fallen back, got into Ambrose sending both cars into the wall just before turn 1. An angry Earnhardt took his Chevy to the garage while Ambrose was able to continue.
The green flag waved with five laps to go; Logano led, Keselowski was second, McMurray third, Newman fourth. Logano and Keselowski dueled for the lead but Keselowski taking the advantage with four to go. Harvick took over second but with two laps to go suddenly Hamlin, and Busch shot to the front from back in the pack. Hamlin began to check out after the field had taken the white flag. He was able to hold onto the lead and win his second Sprint Unlimited in his 9th try.
“The best car won, that’s for sure. We’re two in a row now,” Hamlin said referring to his win to end the 2013 season at Homestead, “We’re building on something. That was survival of the fittest for sure. With three (laps) to go we’re at the tail end of a very small pack and it’s really hard to get runs, but this car was just phenomenal and you saw it those last couple laps.”
Hamlin’s first Sprint Unlimited win came in 2006 when he was a rookie becoming the first rookie to win the Unlimited.
“It’s a great win,” Hamlin said. “You love starting Speedweeks like this. In 2006, it kind of spring-boarded my career into a great year. 2009 winning Homestead spring-boarded us into a great 2010 and a championship run. There’s no negatives that come out of a day like today.”
Keswlowski was second, Busch third, Logano fourth, and Kevin Harvick fifth.