By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
Entering the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advanced Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway, 2016 winner Denny Hamlin looked to be a favorite to win. In a blind draw, Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Wheeler, drew the second starting position for the annual exhibition race.
After electing not to participate in the first practice session, Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry was fastest in the second practice. The bulk of the second practice session saw manufacturers drafting exclusively.
As the first segment of race got underway, Hamlin dueled with the No. 2 SKF Ford Fusion of pole sitter Brad Keselowski for the lead. After briefly taking the lead several times, it seemed as if Hamlin would eventually take exclusive control of the lead.
That changed on lap 16 as Jimmie Johnson broke loose and hooked Kurt Busch into the outside wall, bringing out the caution. Handling, it appeared, would play a factor in the race, just as it did in the 2016 Daytona 500.
Hamlin, along with the rest of the field ducked onto pit road during the caution for both fuel and tires.
The race restarted with just two laps remaining before the mandatory caution on lap 25 to end segment one. As the field came to complete lap 24, Hamlin, along with all of the other Toyotas in the field, and Alex Bowman’s Chevrolet SS, took advantage of the situation and hit pit road for a splash of fuel. As they left pit road, the competition caution waved. Of the Toyota brigade that entered pit road, Kyle Busch was caught speeding on entry and had to drop to the tail end of the longest line.
While the remainder of the field pitted, Hamlin stayed on the racetrack and assumed the lead, repeating a strategy that helped him win this race in 2016.
As the race restarted, Hamlin had three of his four Toyota teammates behind him, while the rest of the field jockeyed for position. Hamlin had a fairly comfortable lead of the draft until lap 48, when Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet broke loose once again and spun into the inside wall, bringing out the caution. Hamlin once again stayed on track.
When the race restarted, Hamlin had his rookie teammate, Daniel Suarez on his outside. Suarez squeezed behind Hamlin, and ahead of fellow Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, just as they had planned. With Kyle Busch making his way back into the top four, it seemed that Toyota would once again dominate the race in the same fashion as they had in the 2016 Daytona 500.
The green flag run was brief as Martin Truex Jr. spun off of the nose of Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet. Under the caution, Hamlin, along with the rest of the top seven, chose not to pit.
As the race restarted with just under 10 laps to go, Hamlin once again was comfortably out front. Behind him and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, the field jockeyed for position. With five laps to go, Keselowski finally got the push he needed as he formed a line on the outside with the Fords of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. With the laps ticking off, Keselowski slowly worked the draft to break up the Toyota contingent.
Keselowski finally cleared Suarez on the backstretch with two laps to go. Hamlin blocked high and low as he came to take the white flag.
Entering turn one, Keselowski finally found a hole under Hamlin. Hamlin tried to block, but made contact with Keselowski’s nose. Logano quickly jumped out from behind the smoke to take the lead as the field scattered. Hamlin fought hard to regain control of his Toyota Camry before making more contact with Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Dow Chevrolet and finally spinning off of turn two.
In the confusion, some slowed to avoid Hamlin, while others were unaware that Logano was by himself. Logano ultimately took the checkered flag with Kyle Busch and Bowman battling for second over 10 car lengths behind.
Hamlin struggled to see how the end of the race could have played out differently,
“There is not much that I could have done differently to defend. Perhaps staying in the middle lane in one and two and try to side draft. He (Keselowski) had help from the 22 (Logano), so I knew I was in a bad spot there. He was just coming so much faster than what I was, there was not much I could have done. We were lined up so well as Toyota teammates. It’s just once they started breaking that up, and leap frogging, and he had commitment from the 22, and that put us at a speed differential.”
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team will now look forward to the Daytona 500 where they hope to defend their 2016 victory.