The 2014 NASCAR season officially got underway, as Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night at the Daytona International Speedway.
Although this race doesn't count in the standings, it's traditionally the curtain-raiser for the new year and gets fans ready for the Daytona 500.
Hamlin was pretty much the last man standing as countless drivers were knocked out of the race earlier. Only eight of the 18 cars that started the race remained by the end, per ESPN Stats and Info:
Hamlin was the deserved winner, as he was the leader at the end of each of the three segments of the race, per USA Today's Jeff Gluck:
The 33-year-old led 27 of the 75 laps. He remained patient throughout and made his moves at the right times, avoiding any costly mistakes.
Brad Keselowski finished second, 0.197 seconds behind Hamlin, and Kyle Busch came in third, 0.443 seconds behind the leader.
Here's a look at the final standings.
|Sprint Unlimited Results|
|Pos.||Driver||Laps||Time Behind (sec)|
|9||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||65||-|
|15||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||35||-|
|NASCAR.com and ESPN.com|
Although the stakes were low on Saturday, the drivers remained competitive.
The first caution of the night came in the 29th lap, right before the conclusion of the first segment. Jimmie Johnson lost control and slammed into the infield wall. There was some question as to whether he got a bump from Kevin Harvick, but Harvick told his crew that Johnson simply "lost it," per SB Nation's Jordan Bianchi:
Of course, that accident was nothing compared to what would come seven laps later. Joey Logano made contact with Matt Kenseth, who spun out and, in a chain reaction, took seven other drivers with him.
Two of the drivers involved were Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Quite ironically, it was Stenhouse who slammed into Patrick, taking her out of the race, per ESPN's Marty Smith:
By the time all the smoke was clear, half of the field was out of the race altogether.
The third segment was where things got interesting. As NASCAR left things up to the fans, the racing order was determined how quickly the cars could exit the pits after getting at least two tires. Although there was a slight advantage for the leaders, as they could enter the pits faster, it essentially wiped the slate clean and put the onus on the pit crews.
In case you wanted to know how crazy Saturday night was, during the caution before the third segment began, the pace car literally caught on fire, per Fox Sports Live and NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O'Donnell. There was no confirmation that Ricky Bobby was the driver:
On a side note, the Terry Labonte fans out there went home unhappy. The veteran driver raced only one lap before heading back to the garage:
Good job, good effort, Labonte.
This race will have no doubt whet the appetites of NASCAR fans. It's a good way to open the year and ease into the new season. The crashes also helped to add some excitement, as nobody was seriously injured. Watching almost half the field go in a few seconds is one of those things you don't see often.
Perhaps Hamlin can take the momentum from Saturday night and carry it into the Daytona 500 and the rest of the Sprint Cup schedule.