The changes that Joe Gibbs Racing made during the off season is so far paying off for Denny Hamlin. He gets a new crew chief in Mike Wheeler and unknowingly to everyone, both he and Hamlin would practically rule Daytona. Hamlin not only won the 2016 Sprint Unlimited, he also won the 58th running of the Daytona 500. It was indeed a day of firsts in the Great American Race. It was Toyota’s and Hamlin’s first ever Daytona 500 win. It was also Mike Wheeler’s first win overall as crew chief in only his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, all with Hamlin.
He beat out Martin Truex Jr on the final lap by 0.011 seconds, the closest race ever in Daytona 500 history. Hamlin also becomes the sixth driver to win both the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500 in the same year. The win was marked as its second Daytona 500 victory for JGR since Dale Jarrett in 1993. Hamlin led for a career best 95 laps as he got past Matt Kenseth on the final lap thanks to a late push by Kevin Harvick. As for Toyota, it’s the first time ever that four cars finished in the top five.
Truex and Furniture Row Racing’s switch to Toyota and aligning with JGR proved to be the turning point for the close finish. The win has shown that JGR and Toyota haven’t lost a step and have now made Truex a true contender so far to start off 2016. With Truex second, Kyle Busch was third and Carl Edwards fifth. Harvick was the fastest Chevrolet finishing fourth. Other Chevrolet drivers which involve Hendrick Motorsports turned out not so well in the early and late stages.
Pole sitter and rookie Chase Elliott spun on lap 19 after running in the top 10, tearing up his car in the infield grass finishing 37th 40 laps down. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led for 15 laps early, then he too lost control and hit the SAFER Barrier with 30 to go, knocking him out in 36th. Jimmie Johnson managed to hang with JGR for a short time as he led for 18 laps, but with JGR faster off pit road and a too many men over the wall penalty, he could only settle for 16th. What started out as a speedy start for Hendrick turned into complete disaster as Kasey Kahne had the best finish in 13th.
It is indeed most likely too early to say if this is already Hamlin’s year to have a career one. Some could say that winning the Daytona 500 is a career start. We could all tell immediately that he and Wheeler have clicked real quickly. He couldn’t look happier right now as JGR and Toyota are already off to a strong start. He looks to make it two in a row as they head to Atlanta next. Hamlin will look for his second Atlanta win in four years and Toyota’s third in the last five.
The highest finishing rookie in the Daytona 500 was Ryan Blaney in 19th for Wood Brothers Racing.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Bryan Law