Joe Gibbs Racing opened its 25th Anniversary season with a win in the sport’s biggest race when Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag in today’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
JGR was strong throughout speed weeks at the famed 2.5-mile speedway and today was certainly no different with all four JGR teams running inside the top five late in the race with an opportunity for a win. But in the end it was a bold last lap move to the outside that propelled Hamlin and the FedEx team to the win. Fittingly enough it was the first Daytona 500 victory for JGR since Dale Jarrett captured the organization’s first overall win at the race back in 1993.
Meanwhile Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards joined Hamlin in the top five with third and fifth-place finishes respectively and Kenseth led 40 laps at the end of the race before being passed by Hamlin on the final lap and losing momentum causing him to drop back to a 14th-place finish.
Denny Hamlin started the No. 11 FedEx Express Camry from the 11th position and patiently drove his way to the front and was running second behind his teammate in the 18 prior to the first caution on lap 20. He would restart in the top spot on lap 24 and hold the lead until the next caution on lap 58. Hamlin would dominate much of the first half of the race, leading a race-high 39 of the opening 100 laps. That dominance would continue through much of the second half of the race as well. The FedEx Camry would hold the top spot for a total of 95 laps on the day, but it was a strong move to the top of the track that allowed Hamlin to lead the most important lap of the day. Hamlin was running fourth late when he moved up in front of the 4 car who was trying to make a late race run to the front of his own. The move worked perfectly as he built momentum on the outside and when his teammate Matt Kenseth, who was leading at the time moved up the track in an attempt to block, Hamlin dipped to the middle to make the pass. He would have to edge out Martin Truex, Jr. at the line to earn the win, which he managed to do by the slimmest of margins. In fact, it was the closest Daytona 500 finish in the history of the event. The win was not only Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 victory, but also the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win ever for rookie crew chief Mike Wheeler. Of course the two combined to win last week’s Sprint Unlimited non-points event as well.
Kyle Busch, who enters the 2016 season as defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion after an incredible 2015 campaign, qualified for today’s Daytona 500 in the fourth position and was able to slide up one spot into second when his teammate Matt Kenseth had to go to the back of the field for the drop of the green flag. Busch would patiently navigate the opening laps behind the wheel of the No. 18 M&M’S 75th Anniversary Camry, before moving around the 88 to lead for the first time on lap 18. He would restart third following the day’s first caution on lap 26. Busch was strong all afternoon as he remained in the top five. He was running third following the final restart with 12 laps to go and he settled in hoping to make a last lap move to the front. However that opportunity never came as he his teammate Hamlin got to his outside with momentum to make the pass for the win. Busch would go on to finish third.
Carl Edwards started the No. 19 ARRIS Toyota from the 10th position and was patient through the early going before contact with the 24 car on lap 20 brought out the day’s first caution. Edwards would avoid major damage but crew chief Dave Rogers would bring him down pit road for some repairs to the nose of his ARRIS Camry. He would restart toward the back of the field on lap 26. Edwards would once again show patience through the early stages of the race, but when the 14 car spun on lap 58 he was forced up the track to avoid contact and the 6 car made contact from behind sending him into the wall. He would bring his ARRIS Camry down pit road for additional repairs, but this time the damage was more severe the lengthy repairs dropped him a lap down to the leaders. Another caution on lap 92 would provide another opportunity for the ARRIS team to work on the car prior to a lap 99 restart and the team’s efforts paid off when a lap 120 caution provided the 19 team the lucky dog designation to put him back on the lead lap. From there Edwards would begin to climb his way back toward the front of the field and was back inside the top ten by lap 160. He would enter to top five for the final 12 lap run to the finish. Edwards’ fifth-place comeback finish was a strong start to the season for the 19 team.
Matt Kenseth started the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota in the back of the field after an accident in Thursday’s qualifying race forced the team to move to a backup car. Kenseth had earned a spot on the front row when he qualified second in last week’s qualifying session. It didn’t take long for him to move his way back into the top 20 and he would restart in the top ten on lap 26. Kenseth would make his way to the front with his teammates and was running in the top three throughout the midpoint of the race. He would get blocked in his pits on a lap 120 pit stop causing him to drop back to run seventh and once again he would have to show great patience in his efforts to return to the front of the field. On the next round of stops his Dollar General crew put together an amazing green flag stop that put him out front once the field cycled through. Kenseth would go on to lead the next 40 laps and appeared set to win his third career Daytona 500. However his teammate got an amazing run after jumping to the high line on the final lap and managed to make a thrilling pass. Kenseth would lose momentum momentarily in the process causing him to drop back to 14th at the finish.
Hamlin captured the win and was followed by fellow Toyota drivers Martin Truex, Jr. and his teammate Busch. Kevin Harvick was fourth, while teammate Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. There were six cautions for a total of 31 laps and 20 lead changes among 15 different drivers.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway next week with live coverage on Fox starting Sunday, February 28 at Noon ET (race starts at 1 PM ET). The race will also be carried on Sirius NASCAR radio channel 90.