By AMANDA VINCENT
After getting caught up in a caution-inducing incident on lap 13 of the Sprint Unlimited NASCAR Sprint Up Series exhibition race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway on Saturday night, Denny Hamlin and company gambled on fuel mileage by last pitting for fuel on lap 22 of the race that was scheduled for a 75-lap distance. Despite the race going into an overtime that extended the distance to 79 laps, it was a gamble that paid off, as the night ended with Hamlin driving his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into victory lane.
The win was Hamlin’s third of the Sprint Unlimited and Joe Gibbs Racing’s fourth in the last five years. But it was the first win of any kind at the Sprint Cup level for crew chief Mike Wheeler, who was calling the shots in his first Sprint Cup event.
“I don’t know if he was poised; he was poised on the radio,” Hamlin said of the new crew chief. “We’ve got such a young team. Crew chief, engineers, they all look like they’re a bunch of high school kids.”
Joey Logano finished second, Paul Menard was third, Kyle Larson fourth, and Casey Mears rounded out the top-five.
Hamlin was in a big club when it came to drivers caught up in on-track incidents. Only a small handful of cars out of the 25 that started the event came away unscathed after seven cautions, including one that ended the race as Hamlin drove to the win.
A multi-car wreck involving Hamlin’s JGR teammates Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, along with Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon brought out the yellow flag with three laps remaining, setting the race up for a test of NASCAR’s new green-white-checker format.
The race did produce a green-white-checker restart, but the next and final caution came after the white flag, so the event would’ve ended under caution, overtime line or not.
“We took the white flag under green, so if it was last year’s green-white-checker policy, it would have been the same,” Logano said. “It never came into play. The only way it would have is if the caution came out before we got to the white flag, so the rule didn’t come into play to be any different this time.”
In all, the yellow flag waved seven times. Hamlin’s remaining teammate, Matt Kenseth, was among those collected in the last-lap caution that ended the race.
After Jimmie Johnson started on the pole, Keselowski took the lead at the start and led the first 10 laps before an overheating problem caused by debris forced him to give up the lead to Jamie McMurray on lap 11.
“I think my spotter said it best when he said it looked like there was a lot of construction debris out there,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know. There were really big sheets of plastic. I don’t think it would have mattered what manufacturer it was. It is just one of those days.”
After a lap 23 yellow flag for Brian Vickers (in a fill-in role for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet), Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hamlin cycled to the lead after pitting under green just before the caution. Keselowski restarted next to him on the front row after getting off pit road first with a fuel-only stop.
Hamlin and Keselowski combined to lead most of the remainder of the race, with Hamlin leading a race-high 39 laps and Keselowski running up front for 26 circult. Late in the race, Joe Gibbs Racing and the Team Penske duo of Keselowski and Logano dominated the top-five. They occupied all top-five spots in the running order on a restart with six laps remaining in the scheduled distance.
“This win couldn’t be possible without my teammates,” Hamlin said. “Matt sacrificed so much, pushing me at the right time. Total team effort. Just like Kyle’s championship, we win as one. This is a Joe Gibbs Racing win.”
But when Keselowski was involved in the wreck that ultimately resulted in the green-white-checker restart, Logano replaced his teammate in the battle with Hamlin for the win.
“It was crazy like normal, right?” Logano asked. “What a great race. I had a great Shell Pennzoil Ford Fusion, and we kept working our way up from the back, and it was hard for us to get that lead.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished sixth, Kurt Busch seventh, Dillon eighth, Keselowski was ninth and Biffle rounded out the top-10.
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