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Denny Hamlin Wins Crash-Filled Sprint Unlimited, Which NASCAR Has Made Obsolete

Down the stretch they roar, with Sprint Unlimited winner Denny Hamlin's black Toyota on the inside.
Down the stretch they roar, with Sprint Unlimited winner Denny Hamlin's black Toyota on the inside.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Monte DuttonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2016

Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited for the third time. The race was filled with thrills, chills, wrecks and cellophane bags. Hamlin drove a Toyota. A Ford driver, Joey Logano, finished second, and Paul Menard drove a Chevrolet to third.

Perfect, right? Not exactly.

The Sprint Unlimited, which, for the record, is limited—25 drivers, in this particular case—but isn't, by title, an all-star event. In NASCAR official terminology, it's often referred to as "a special event," like the Pixley Catfish Festival or something. The official Sprint All-Star Race will be run for little reason, too, on May 21 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The race that began in 1980 as the Busch Clash has been reduced to a trial run.

Owner Joe Gibbs yearns for another Daytona 500 victory.
Owner Joe Gibbs yearns for another Daytona 500 victory.Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

"I was joking with Denny in the winner's circle," owner Joe Gibbs said in the post-race media conference. "I said, 'It's the 500, OK, not the Shootout [a former name].' I says, 'Try to get us a 500, will you?' It's been 23 years since we were able to win one."

Hamlin's first words into a media-center microphone were, "Obviously, it's short enough for my attention span. That's all I can think of."

Gibbs and Hamlin both said it was "a big, big deal for us," but, again, it was the Daytona 500, coming up on Feb. 21, about which they were talking.

Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has crashed out of the last four Unlimiteds, which, in his case, are a reference to misfortune. He has finished no better than 11th in his last seven.

Predictably, Johnson said, "I don't want any luck in this one. I want it all next Sunday."

Sprint Unlimited Lap Leaders
LeaderDenny HamlinBrad KeselowskiJamie McMurray
Finished1914
Started15224
Status at EndRunningRunningRunning
Laps Led392614
Racing-Reference.info

Let the record note that the Clash/Shootout/Unlimited was not always irrelevant, obsolete and outmoded. Once it had a vibe of adventure. All the pole winners—the fastest at every track!—raced together for NASCAR's overhyped version of a land-speed-record run. Daytona Beach might as well have been the Bonneville Salt Flats 30 years ago, at least in terms of stock-car equivalence.

It didn't hurt that Dale Earnhardt, the patron saint of hard chargers, was as indomitable as the power his trusty Lumina, or Monte Carlo, seemed always to provide. Earnhardt, killed in a Daytona 500 crash 15 years ago, won the Clash six times.

This one was a good race, particularly for fans who love crashes and owners who have plenty of money.

As runner-up Joey Logano said afterward, "It seems like this race can go either way. It can be complete chaos, or kind of a snoozer, and [tonight] was complete chaos."

An estimated $2.5 million in damages occurred from six crashes that each involved at least two cars. What's that familiar cliche? What goes around comes around? The winner, Hamlin, was in the first one. The last spurred overtime, but Hamlin didn't have to weather a green-flag finish because the rest of the field couldn't play nice long enough to allow it.

The once-experimental race has been left behind. NASCAR is trying out its new gimmicks—a caution clock in Trucks, heat races in Xfinity, etc.—elsewhere. The current rationale for keeping the Unlimited is that, until next year when Sprint leaves Cup, the money is there. Other than that, it's, "What's up, guys? Let's go take a spin."

Seldom is it a good sign when post-race discussion centers on litter. On a windy night, it often looked as if ghosts were zipping out of the wheel wells. Ten thousand fans didn't go to Publix on the way to the track. Ten thousand fans didn't go to the track at all. Some thought the trash was construction leftovers from Daytona International Speedway's recently completed refurbishment.

"It looked like a landfill on the front straightway," Logano said, which was not what track officials were looking for as an evaluation of their lavish renovations. 

What Greg Biffle observed from 10th place described the night. Pretty good. All except for the crowd, which was obviously pretty bad.

"It was pretty good. Our car was pretty fast. These things are getting harder and harder to pass. They are all the same speed. We are two and three wide, and you can't really do anything. The car drove good though."

Pretty good.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't make it to the end.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't make it to the end.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

"We got in some trouble there early and had the side ripped off," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "They won't let you race without door foam, and apparently, I guess maybe you have to have the door on, as well."

Inspectors are such sticklers, and Earnhardt Jr. is such a kidder.

"It's kind of nice just to knock the rust off," Logano said. "Let the guys make a pit stop or two, and let my spotter and I kind of get used to running a draft again and make sure we remember everything.

"I didn't forget everything, so that's good."

Now let's all get fired up for the Daytona 500! Who's with me? Aaaii, yiiyyaaiihh, hoooo-weeeee!

 

Follow @montedutton on Twitter.

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.

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