The closest finish in Daytona 500 history might not have happened had Denny Hamlin not become seriously overconfident several laps earlier.
Leading late in NASCAR’s season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, Hamlin went to pit road for a final time for a two-tire change.
Hamlin skidded into the stall, scuffing all four tires on his No. 11 Toyota. Crew chief Michael Wheeler made the instant decision to change all four, adding a few precious seconds to the process.
“I got cocky,” said Hamlin. “I’d been beating everybody off pit road all day, then I come in and blow it, screw up the tires on the last stop that actually counts.”
Hamlin came out of the pits in seventh place. But those four fresh tires paid off just a few laps later as Hamlin had just enough to pass Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth in Turn 4 of the final lap, then beat Martin Truex Jr. to the finish line by a scant one-hundredth of a second to win his first 500.
It was a triumphant day for Toyota – which won its first Daytona 500 – and Joe Gibbs Racing, which had a driver win the race for the first time since 1993.
Hamlin was one of three JGR drivers in the top five, along with Kyle Busch (third) and Carl Edwards (fifth). And runner-up Truex drives for Furniture Row Racing, which gets technical help from JGR. Kenseth finished 14th.
All that potential teamwork came into play over the final turns of the final lap of NASCAR’s most prestigious race. Hamlin got close to the leaders – three of them JGR teammates – and waited to pounce.
“I’m sitting there and I’m thinking at three (laps) to go, ‘If it wasn’t my teammates, I’d be making a move right now,’” said Hamlin. “Two to go, ‘If it wasn’t my teammates, I’d make a move right now. I can’t preach about teamwork to all the crew chiefs and the drivers – ‘Hey, guys, stick together, stick together.’ You can’t do that and then at the last minute screw it all up and somebody else win the race.”
Kenseth, who had claimed the lead after Hamlin’s sloppy pit stop, rounded Turn 3 with a single-file lead over Truex, Busch and Edwards.
That’s when Hamlin, getting a push from Kevin Harvick, made his move on his Kenseth, coming from a group of cars high trailing the leaders high on the track.
Kenseth reacted by moving up to try to block Hamlin. Kenseth’s yellow No. 20 wasn’t up to the task, wobbling slightly as it tried to pinch Hamlin.
“I was coming off a huge run and I had four good tires because of my screw-up,” said Hamlin. “When (Kenseth) pulled up the track, he ran a longer distance to get to me. I don’t want to second guess what he did. I don’t want him to feel any worse than he probably already does.”
Said JGR owner Joe Gibbs: “I thought the worst. There’s going to be the big one (accident) here.”
Kenseth slowed, and Hamlin tore down the track in pursuit of Truex.
As they bore down on the finish line – Hamlin on the outside, Truex on the inside – Truex heard his spotter screaming encouragement into his headphones. He glanced up at the large video screen above pit road.
“I knew it really close,” said Truex. “I didn’t think either way. I just said, ‘Damn, that was close.’ I mean, that was the only thing I could think of. I couldn’t tell what the heck was going on. I did my best to beat him at the line, but just came up short.”
Hamlin wasn’t sure, either. But he was somewhat reassured when he saw the lights at the top of the scoring pylon blinking with the No. 11.
“I also heard everybody on the radio all going crazy and getting excited, so I knew we’d won,” Hamlin said. “If not, I would have been (mad). You can’t pump fake somebody for a Daytona 500 victory.”
Truex had stayed on Kenseth’s tail for several laps and, heading into the final turn, was just about to make a move until Hamlin beat him to it.
“I was kind of content to stay where I was until off four because I wasn’t sure who was going to be on that outside line,” said Truex. “I felt like I needed to stay in line until at least the front straightaway. That was going to be my plan. Denny was kind of in a good spot where there were guys coming behind him that were already on the outside. They weren’t teammates. He was the first guy to jump in front of them and get that momentum.
“By the time they got to us, we were just kind of trying to get away from them.”
There’s never been a tighter finish in Daytona history. The margin didn’t matter to Hamlin, who had offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee. Sunday’s was his 27th victory in a 10-year career, but his first signature triumph. Now he wants more.
“I’ve won my fair share, but never the big races,” Hamlin said. “I hadn’t won a championship or a Daytona 500 or a Brickyard 400 or a Coca-Cola 600. I don’t want to be the guy who wins a lot of races, but not the big ones.”