By AMANDA VINCENT
Denny Hamlin captured career-firsts for multiple entities, including himself, with his win in the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway on Sunday. It was his first win in the race dubbed, “The Great America Race,” the first for crew chief Mije Wheeler in his firs points-paying race as a crew chief, and also the first victory in NASCAR’s biggest event for Toyota. The race also made history as the closest finish in Daytona 500 history, as Hamlin beat second-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. to the checkered flag by a scant 0.01 seconds.
“This is the best,” Hamlin said. “I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 is — as a kid what you — this is the pinnacle of our sport, and I’m just proud to be here.”
Toyota dominated the race, led primarily by Hamlin, who led 95 laps of the 200-lap race. Throughout most of the race, Hamlin, along with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth and corporate teammate Truex of Furniture Row Racing, maintained the top-four spots in the running order. Meanwhile, JGR teammate Carl Edwards spent much of the race a lap down after repairs for damage sustained during a lap 57 crash.
“This is a team victory,” Hamlin said. “My teammates did an amazing job all day working together, all the Toyotas. This is a proud moment for everyone at Toyota, FedEx (Hamlin’s primary sponsor). I don’t know where that came from. I don’t know what happened. I can’t even figure out what I did, but it all just came together. This wouldn’t be possible if this wasn’t Toyotas sticking together all race long.”
In the end, Toyota claimed the top-three spots in the finishing order, with Busch finishing third. The manufacturer laid claim to four spots inside the top-five, with Edwards getting back on the lead lap late and recovering to finish fifth. Chevrolet driver Kevin Harvick finished fourth. Kenseth wound up 14th at the finish after taking the white flag with the race lead.
Chase Elliott started on the pole and was joined up front at the start by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. After losing the lead to Earnhardt on lap four, Elliott drifted back several positions and then spun through the grass, damaging the front end of his car on lap 19. Earnhardt also wrecked, spinning and hitting the inside retaining wall with 30 laps to go.
“I’m not sure (what happened),” Elliott said. “Just got turned around there off of four. Got in the middle and got loose. Lost it and spun out. I hate it for everybody at less than 20 laps in and have something dumb like that happen. I apologize to my guys.”
Joey Logano finished sixth, Kyle Larson was seventh, Regan Smith eighth, Austin Dillon ninth, and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-10.
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