I had anticipated that Joe Gibbs Racing would pick up where they left off after Kyle Busch took home the hardware that is the Sprint Cup Championship. I also expected JGR to pick up where they left off, and expected Matt Kenseth to repeat at Sprint Unlimited winner to redeem himself from last season. The night did belong to JGR, but it was Denny Hamlin who would cash in over $200,000 after multiple wreck fests involved nearly half of the field for the second straight year.
Even after an isolated incident with Ricky Stenhouse Jr just under 15 laps in, Hamlin and new crew chief Mike Wheeler got their car taped back together, and this time stayed in the top 10 the rest of the way. Hamlin went back and forth with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano as it looked like either JGR or Team Penske would take home the money. Keselowski fought with trash on his grill causing his temperature to go up, but both JGR and Penske proved to have the best cars despite minor setbacks.
It was Stewart-Haas and Hendrick who had a bad night as all six were involved in multi-car incidents. Brian Vickers filling in for Tony Stewart, blew out a tire taking out teammate Kevin Harvick and also collecting Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson was also spun out causing him to exit early for the fourth straight year, and Kasey Kahne fared no different. Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson raced in the top 10 with McMurray leading for 14 laps. One of the biggest surprises was Casey Mears who finished fifth.
This is the third straight Sprint Unlimited win and four of the last five for Joe Gibbs Racing, although Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch got in trouble late and Kenseth finished 12th. It proves that JGR hasn’t lost a step, with Team Penske and possibly Chip Ganassi following along. We won’t know for sure how Hendrick will turn out since we haven’t seen Chase Elliott yet, but really not enough to tell with the trouble they got into.
Yes it’s indeed early, but Hamlin and Wheeler seem to be clicking well so far. If you don’t think the Sprint Unlimited can help build momentum towards the 58th Daytona 500, you’re sorely mistaken. Joey Logano may be the defending champion, but Hamlin may become the first driver to win both since Dale Jarrett. JGR may have already cranked up their title defense, and Hamlin looks to be the favorite to win it.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Bryan Law