By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway ended with a mere handful of cars undamaged—and race winner Denny Hamlin’s Toyota wasn’t one of them.
But Hamlin got his wreck out of the way early in a two-car incident with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford on Lap 13 and won the race in overtime with a large swatch of silver tape on the right side of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry.
Hamlin triumphed in the season-opening non-points event for the second time in three years (and third time overall) and gave JGR its fourth Sprint Unlimited victory in the last five years.
Under NASCAR’s new overtime rules, which require the leader to reach an overtime line on the backstretch under green on the restart lap before the race is official, the event ended under caution for a six-car wreck in Turn 1.
The overtime extended the race four laps past its scheduled distance, and, by then, Hamlin had a comfortable lead—if any lead on a superspeedway can be considered comfortable.
Joey Logano came home second, Paul Menard third and Kyle Larson fourth in a race that saw only four of the 25 cars avoid wrecks that collectively produced seven cautions for 25 laps.
Hamlin chose the outside line for the final restart, abandoning help from JGR teammate Matt Kenseth, who restarted fourth in the outside line.
“It was just such a dilemma for me to figure out what lane to start in,” Hamlin said. “I had gotten good pushes from Matt all night long, and I hated leaving him in that top line, but I felt like I’d had success on the bottom all night, and I didn’t want to leave it for that final restart.”
A wild seven-car crash on Lap 23 severely damaged the cars of several pre-race favorites, including the No. 88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. In his first competitive run as a substitute for injured Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers spun while barreling into Turn 1 after his right rear tire went flat.
Vickers’s spin ignited the wreck that also crippled the cars of Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and also involved the Ford of Greg Biffle and the Chevrolet of AJ Allmendinger.
Vickers’ Chevy took a hard hit against the outside SAFER barrier, but the driver of the No. 14 appeared unhurt in the incident.
“I cut a right rear tire,” Vickers said after exiting the infield care center. “It’s unfortunate. I don’t know how I cut the tire. I had a little contact. Everyone was racing hard. It’s the Sprint Unlimited, right? That’s what it’s all about. The 18 (Kyle Busch) and I got together early on, going four-wide. Had a little rub but it went away so we thought everything was fine.
“The 2 (Brad Keselowski) and I got together a little bit right there on the front stretch going into (Turn) 1. Maybe that was it. I just don’t know. It was a cut of some kind. It’s just unfortunate.”
Lap 44 marked the end of the race for Jimmie Johnson, who spun on the backstretch after contact with the No. 13 Chevy of Casey Mears and tore the front fascia of his No. 48 Chevrolet while sliding across the bus stop chicane used in the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race.
But Johnson had run near the front up to that point, and crew chief Chad Knaus was pleased with the effort.
“We learned a little bit tonight,” Knaus said, with a tone of voice that suggested he had actually learned quite a bit. “Thanks, everybody. Good dress rehearsal.”
Image: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images