DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Four drivers went into the Daytona 500 determined to end Joe Gibbs’ 23-year losing skid in NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.
So when Matt Kenseth took the white flag, Denny Hamlin was determined to help his teammate get to victory lane. Only the move he made to defend for Kenseth led to Hamlin winning the closest Daytona 500 in history.
His decision to jump out of line to block a charge from Kevin Harvick instead led Harvick to push Hamlin enough to catch Kenseth. He staved off Kenseth’s attempt to block, then wedged in between Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. and beat Truex to the checkered flag by 0.010 seconds.
Even as he celebrated his first Daytona 500 victory, Hamlin felt for his teammate.
“This is a great moment for me, but I feel awful for Matt because he’s such a great friend, such a great teammate,” Hamlin said. “I’m just so proud of all my other teammates for us being so committed to each other for 500 miles. That was very rare that you see the selflessness that you saw, even with two laps to go. All of us were committed to pushing (Kenseth) to a victory.
“I saw (Harvick) coming. I said, ‘If I didn’t make a run, he was going to make a run just like I did.’ I went up there to block, he hit me so hard it shot me three cars forward. It’s crazy, it happened so fast.”
The victory ended Gibbs’ 23-year drought at the Daytona 500. It gave Hamlin his first Daytona 500 victory in 10 tries, and Toyota its first in “The Great American Race.”
“It’s the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” said Hamlin.
Gibbs, who in November celebrated with Kyle Busch the team’s first Sprint Cup title in a decade, won the race for the first time since Dale Jarrett in 1993.
Gibbs had made it clear that he had no use for the victories his drivers collected in the exhibition races leading into Sunday’s season-opener — Hamlin and Busch each won one race in the buildup to the opener. But the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach was focused only on the 500 and his four drivers brainstormed on the best way to get a win.
“The thrill in football, you can’t get any more excited than that, winning a Super Bowl. It’s the same thrill over here,” Gibbs said. “Most people never get to have a dream in life. I’ve had two from an occupational standpoint. I’m probably one of the most blessed guys in the world.”
Hamlin, Kenseth, Busch and Carl Edwards stuck close together for most of the race, and they got assistance from Truex, who became a de facto JGR teammate this year when Furniture Row Racing moved to Toyota.
Kenseth led Truex until the final lap when Hamlin finally jumped out of line. Starting a second line on the outside, Hamlin got a push from Kevin Harvick that allowed him to catch Kenseth. Kenseth tried to throw a block but Hamlin wedged into the middle between Kenseth and Truex, and Kenseth had to save his car from wrecking.
“The last thing I wanted to do was wreck off turn four with my Toyota teammates and none of us win,” Hamlin said. “We had talked about a plan overnight to just work together, work together and I’ve never seen it executed so flawlessly.
“I said with two to go that we have to get the team victory no matter what it takes and I essentially was trying to go up there and block (Harvick) to keep him from getting to those guys.”
Truex wasn’t sure what he could have done differently.
“It hurts a little bit,” Truex said. “I think the only thing I should have done different was been a little more aggressive coming to the line, holding Denny up the race track. That last split second when he pulled off my door, that was it. It gave him that couple inches to beat me to the line.
“It’s hard to make those decisions. Live and learn. I think if I get in that position again, I’ll do it a little bit differently.”
Toyotas swept the podium as Truex was second, and Busch third. Edwards was fifth to give Toyota four of the top five spots. It comes three months after Busch gave Toyota its first championship.
“This was our 10th try at the Daytona 500,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, who called the win the biggest in Toyota history — trumping even the 2003 Indianapolis 500 victory.
“When we came into the sport, we struggled. We were not ready. We didn’t know. And so it’s taken time for us to collectively build an organization of winning races and competing for championships.”
Kenseth faded to 14th.
“They don’t get much more crushing than that,” Kenseth said. “If I can’t win, I want my teammate to win. There’s a million things you could do differently, but I did what I thought I should do at the time to try to win. We finished terrible, but that was the move I thought I had to make to try to preserve the win.”