By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
The 58th annual Daytona 500 is in the books and with it a new champion crowned in Denny Hamlin. With ‘The Great American Race’ now over, it’s time to revisit some of the big takeaways from the Sprint Cup season opener.
1) Hendrick Motorsports fell flat
Our NASCAR Editor, Toby Christie, pointed out that this was the first time since 2009 that a driver from Hendrick Motorsports has failed to grab a top 10 finish – see that story here. With that said, the performance, or lack thereof, was simply astonishing.
The ‘Restrictor plate Badass’, Dale Earnhardt Jr., managed to make some noise early on, but honestly the No. 88 didn’t appear nearly as strong as it did in the opening Can-Am Duel he won Thursday night. Heralded rookie Chase Elliott won the pole in his Daytona 500 debut, but after leading early, the second –generation driver found trouble and a wrecked racecar. Jimmie Johnson, led 18 laps, but stumbled from a late race pit road penalty and never recovered. That brings us to Kasey Kahne, who ran quietly in and around the top 10 before settling as the highest finisher for Mr. H’s organization in 13th.
The most shocking thing in all of this though isn’t even the finishes. It is the lack of teamwork seen on the track. Aside from Earnhardt following Elliott during the opening few laps, there wasn’t a whole lot of drafting between teammates.
2) NASCAR on FOX
Being no stranger to knowing that the media has strong storylines to focus on, there was maybe a little too much focus on some drivers and a huge lack of it on others. For a good portion, let’s call it 70%, all that was talked about and viewed by cameras were Earnhardt, Elliott, or Hamlin. Now, I get the fact that they all three have a unique story to bring to the table, but with all the emphasis on these three how could anyone follow who the hell was leading the race? The race report says Johnson led 18 laps (as stated above), but not once did I hear the announcers reference the two-time Daytona 500 champion or even put a camera on the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. This wasn’t the case with just Johnson either. This was a situation that happened with several drivers that inherited the lead. In a wreck between Matt DiBenedetto and rookie Chris Buescher replays never showed how the accident began, just its aftermath. There isn’t much more to say about the coverage that the fans haven’t already said through various social media channels.
3) Thank you, NASCAR
That’s right, I’m thanking NASCAR. In a race that featured several lulled moments in the middle stages and had many eager for a caution to bring in close, intense racing, the folks in charge maintained the integrity of the sport and let the race play out. No caution clock here (and if you saw the Truck race Friday night then you’d likely be happy about that). Like a ref in an NFL playoff game, they kept the yellow flag in their pocket and let the game be decided on the field, or in this case, a 2.5-mile superspeedway. No wondering, no mystery, just racing. It may not always be pretty to see a race play out that way at times, but it is what‘s right and I for one am happy to see this be a higher importance to NASCAR as we kick-off 2016.
4) He didn’t say what I think he did, did he?
Following Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win, the second in Joe Gibbs Racing’s history, the president of Toyota Racing Development, Dave Wilson, told the media that the win was even more special than Toyota’s win in the 2003 Indianapolis 500. Pretty strong words, but I get it, they had to work harder for longer to earn the Sprint Cup Series championship last year with Kyle Busch and now this win with Hamlin. However, it’s the other words he used that left me dumbfounded:
“This is the greatest race in America,” Wilson said.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t that race up in Indiana been around for awhile? Oh, wait, they have.
‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ is celebrating their 100th Indy 500 this upcoming May and guess what, Toyota isn’t in it. Looks like they’ll never get a chance to contend against Chevrolet or longtime manufacturer rival Honda for what is going to be the greatest victory in all of auto racing.
With all due respect Mr. Wilson, the legacy of the Indy 500 is something that the high banks of Daytona International Speedway will know in about 42 years.
5) Joe Gibbs Racing
The JGR crew was on it all Speedweeks in Daytona, but really flexed their muscle on Sunday. The only downside was the damaged No. 19 Toyota of Carl Edwards, never led a lap but still managed to finish fifth. Between Hamlin, Busch and Matt Kenseth, the trio led seven times for 154 laps. The teamwork was apparent until the very end when Hamlin passed Kenseth, but that’s exactly how you draw it up in a battle between teammates. The reality of this is the fact that with JGR coming out of the gate so strong to start the season, they could be on a scary path all the way to the Chase.
What happened on Sunday was an iconic moment that will continue to build and grow its own legend much like the 2007 Daytona 500, which saw Kevin Harvick edge out Mark Martin at the line in an enthralling finish for the ages. Perhaps this is the year Hamlin puts it all together, only time will tell and we have 35 more races to go to find out.
Image: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images