Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Hamlin Leads Toyota Sweep of Top Eight in First Daytona 500 Practice

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If the Toyota teams had any doubts about its new NASCAR Cup Series body for the 2024 season, those fears appear to have been put to rest over the past two days at Daytona International Speedway.

After an abysmal showing in qualifying Wednesday night that Toyota officials described as “disturbing,” things turned around in a big way once its teams got into the draft on Thursday night, sweeping both of the Bluegreen Duels qualifying races and then claiming the top eight spots in the first practice for the Daytona 500 on Friday evening.

Denny Hamlin led the way for the brand in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing machine with a lap of 45.575 seconds, 197.477 mph, as he vies for his fourth Daytona 500.

“It’s more the way it worked out for sure,” Hamlin said. “We had a big tow from another manufacturer pack of cars and that really plays a big factor into what kind of lap times you run and whatnot. When there weren’t as many cars out there, we ran about the same speeds as everyone else…

“[The new body] is very similar to what we had in the past. I think how you connect to cars and how long you can stay attached is really circumstantial to what kind of technique you use to get there and then do you have enough push to come from behind. Maybe I noticed that I can get pushed a little bit straighter than what it was in the past but it’s tough for me to say. It’s still not enough time and data points to really pinpoint what exactly is different.”

Erik Jones was second-fastest, followed by Christopher Bell, Ty Gibbs, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick, Jimmie Johnson, and Bubba Wallace among the top Toyota drivers.

The outside pole sitter, Michael McDowell, was the fastest Ford driver in ninth, with former Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric rounding out the top-10.

“It’s been a great weekend so far,” McDowell said. “We’ve had a really fast car. Last night, we were fortunate to keep it out of trouble, but able to race really hard and see what we had. We made a few adjustments for today, so smooth. We’re all done now and we’ll get ready to race on Sunday.”

As the only manufacturer not to have a new body for 2024, Austin Dillon was the fastest Chevrolet in 15th place, but chalked their speed up to the way things played out in practice versus being a telltale sign of the manufacturer’s outlook for Sunday.

“We looked pretty good in qualifying and it’s hard to tell when you have small packs out there,” Dillon explained. “The RCR cars and the HMS cars made a run together, but you throw in the Trackhouse guys then maybe we start running the same lap times that the other manufacturers are running. They were just in bigger groups, so I think more is better. At least it was right there it seemed like…

“Pretty happy with it and if we can make that a little better then we can go into Sunday and have a little fun.”

Weather-permitting, the Cup Series will have one final practice session for the Daytona 500 on Saturday morning at 10:30 am ET before buckling down and getting ready for the 66th running of the Great American Race on Sunday.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.