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Hamlin’s Sprint Unlimited win kicks off NASCAR’s season of change

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/16/20/31/aqDg4.Em.138.jpeg|270
    David Graham - AP
    Matt Kenseth (20) slides sideways in front of Joey Logano), Tony Stewart (14) and Jeff Gordon (24), starting a multi-car crash in the front stretch on Sunday during the Sprint Unlimited race in Daytona Beach, Fla.Denny Hamlin, front, escaped the wreck.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/16/20/31/1haeNO.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Phelan M. Ebenhack - AP
    Denny Hamlin (11) performs a burnout in front of the grandstands after winning the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. A huge wreck, a pace car catches fire and Denny Hamlin dominates on his way to victory.

A season of change officially is underway for NASCAR.

Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway produced its share of fireworks and good racing, despite only eight of 18 cars running at the end.

Hamlin, who missed part of last season with a back injury but won the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, led the most laps of the 75-lap non-points race and held off Brad Keselowski to remain undefeated since November.

“I feel like at the start of this season, I feel as good physically in the car over the course of long runs, better than I have for I can’t even remember, probably rookie season maybe,” said Hamlin, who won the event for the second time.

“On the other hand, the realist in me knows this is superspeedway racing; it is different. Once we get to the other tracks, three, four races down into the schedule, I’ll know where we stand as far as are we fully back to ourselves.”

Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, already is convinced.

“Denny’s on a mission,” he said.

It certainly showed Saturday night.

Fans voted on how to start the race, and Hamlin earned the pole when fans chose to use Friday’s final practice speeds to set the lineup. Why? Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota won that, too.

Hamlin won the first 30-lap segment and the second 25-lap segment but found himself in the back of the pack late. However, that was not nearly as bad as it sounds as a nine-car wreck had whittled the field to eight cars.

Hamlin – on four new tires while many others had taken just two – powered through the field and eventually passed Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Joey Logano to bolt into the lead.

Not even a brief delay before the start of the final segment after the pace car caught fire disrupted Hamlin’s charge.

“Obviously there’s nothing that takes away from what we did because, you know, superspeedway racing, while sometimes it is by chance, it’s not necessarily by chance that you win every segment and lead most of the laps, win the race, ‘Happy Hour,’ (and) have the best pit crew off pit road,” Hamlin said.

“That shows strength, so that can’t be taken for granted.”

Busch ended up third, Logano fourth and Kevin Harvick was fifth. Hamlin won nearly $200,000.

When the race was over, 10 of the 18 cars that started the race were in the garage, including three members of Stewart-Haas Racing – Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a late addition after getting spun during the final segment.

Joining the race participants was the Chevrolet SS pace car, which had to be abandoned before the final segment when it filled with smoke and flames erupted from the trunk area.

Chevrolet issued a statement Sunday morning attributing the fire to the area which housed a purpose-built auxiliary electrical kit to operate the car’s caution lights during the race.

Hamlin’s advice to pace car driver Brett Bodine?

“He should have been driving a Camry.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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