By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Most of the time, when an athlete talks about a “team victory,” it’s nothing more than a sports cliché.
But Denny Hamlin’s win in Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway—by the closest margin in the history of the Great American Race—was a testament to the strength and solidarity of the Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, a JGR affiliate.
In a wild last lap at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Hamlin moved into the outside lane in front of Kevin Harvick, who had gained momentum up top. Avoiding a block from JGR teammate Matt Kenseth in Turn 4, Hamlin dove to the inside and won a drag race to the finish line against Furniture Row’s Martin Truex Jr.
Leading the inside lane after Kenseth abandoned it to try to block Hamlin’s progress, Truex nosed ahead as he and Hamlin approached the stripe. But Hamlin used a last-ditch side-draft to pull even and edged ahead by .010 seconds—roughly four inches—as the cars crossed the line in a photo finish.
The victory was the first for Toyota in the Daytona 500. For JGR, it was the first Daytona 500 win since Dale Jarrett passed the late Dale Earnhardt on the last lap in 1993 to give Joe Gibbs his first triumph as a car owner.
As the race developed, the question wasn’t which car would win, but which Toyota. All told, JGR drivers and Truex led 156 of the 200 laps, with Hamlin setting the pace for 95 of those circuits. With Kyle Busch running third and Carl Edwards fifth, Toyota swept the top three spots and four of the top five.
For Hamlin, who became the fifth driver (and the first since Jarrett accomplished the feat for the second time in 2000) to sweep the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500 in the same season, the final lap was a blur.
“I don’t remember it—honestly,” Hamlin said. “I just remember pulling up in front of the 4 (Harvick, who finished fourth) and him giving me a push and not letting off when he was pushing, and ultimately that was the push to the victory for us. I know we got to the outside of the 18 (Kyle Busch), the 78 (Truex) … and then the 20 (Kenseth) came up to block high, and I saw that the middle was going to be the only way I could get around both of them.
“We cleared the 20 and drag-raced with the 78. This is a total team effort from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, Martin Truex and those guys – all of our cars up front at the end. I said with two (laps) to go that we have to get the team victory no matter what it takes, and I essentially was trying to go up there and block the 4 to keep him from getting to those guys, but he gave me such a strong push I just went with it and we ended up with a victory.”
Up until the last two feet, Truex thought he had the race won.
Denny cut inside (of Kenseth), made it three wide,” said Truex, whose Furniture Row team switched from Chevrolet to Toyota this year. “Just side-drafted me off of Turn 4 all the way to the line. I felt like I had enough momentum to keep him behind me. I did all the way up until that last couple feet.
“He just shot out that last couple inches on me right before the line. Wish I would have crowded him up the track a little bit more late down the frontstretch. Those are split second decisions. He came out on the right end of it today. …
“It’s hard to make those decisions. I felt like I had the momentum, and I did till those last couple feet. So, you know, live and learn. I think if I get in that position again, I’ll do it a little bit differently. First time I’ve ever been in that spot. I think we’ll have a lot more opportunities to win races this year with race cars like that. Looking forward to getting better at taking advantage of them.”
Polesitter Chase Elliott led the first three laps before giving way to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., but Elliott spun off Turn 4 on Lap 19, damaged his No. 24 Chevrolet during a wild slide through the infield grass and lost 40 laps while the car was being repaired. He finished 37th.
Earnhardt’s race ended in the same corner on Lap 170. Driving aggressively toward the front, Earnhardt lost control of the No. 88 Chevrolet and slammed nose-first into inside wall near the entrance to pit road. Earnhardt, who had led 15 laps early in the race, was credited with a 36th-place finish.
Kenseth, who led 40 laps, nearly wrecked when Hamlin dove to his inside on the final lap, but the two-time Daytona 500 winner saved the car and finished 14th.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – Daytona 500
1. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 200
2. (28) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 200
3. (4) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 200
4. (9) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 200
5. (10) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 200
6. (5) Joey Logano, Ford, 200
7. (14) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200
8. (27) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 200
9. (21) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200
10. (8) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 200
11. (38) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 200
12. (34) Aric Almirola, Ford, 200
13. (13) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 200
14. (2) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 200
15. (39) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 200
16. (26) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 200
17. (6) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 200
18. (37) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 200
19. (7) Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 200
20. (25) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 200
21. (30) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 200
22. (19) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 200
23. (24) Landon Cassill, Ford, 200
24. (35) Brian Scott #, Ford, 200
25. (12) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 200
26. (18) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 200
27. (22) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 200
28. (23) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 200
29. (29) David Ragan, Toyota, 200
30. (36) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 200
31. (33) Bobby Labonte, Ford, 200
32. (32) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 199
33. (31) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 199
34. (15) Greg Biffle, Ford, 198
35. (16) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, Accident, 184
36. (3) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, Accident, 169
37. (1) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 160
38. (40) Robert Richardson Jr., Toyota, Engine, 135
39. (17) Chris Buescher #, Ford, Accident, 91
40. (20) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, Accident, 91
Image: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images