NASCAR at Daytona 2016: Winners and Losers from the Daytona 500

Brendan O'MearaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2016

NASCAR at Daytona 2016: Winners and Losers from the Daytona 500

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin won the 58th Daytona 500 in his 11th attempt in the No. 11 car while starting, you guessed it, 11th from Row 6.

    It was a thrilling finish that saw paint and rubber traded by no fewer than three cars on that final half-lap. In the end, Hamlin won by a few inches, the closest finish in the history of the Great American Race.

    Hamlin had never won the GAR, and his performance was the icing on a Toyota-baked cake. The Camrys dominated the race, leading 158 laps and sweeping the top three spots.

    There is plenty more where that came from, so let’s get on with the Great American Winners and Losers (GAWL) from the Daytona 500.

Loser: The Marquee Rookie

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    It didn’t take long for Chase Elliott, the youngest pole winner in the storied history of the Daytona 500, to meet his demise in his first 500.

    On Lap 19, Elliott was victimized by turbulent air while stuck in the middle of three rows. He cut across the bow of Carl Edwards and spun way out at Turn 4. Elliott could do nothing except brace for the impact of his splitter on the infield grass.

    "Just got in the middle there, got loose off [Turn] 4," Elliott told Fox’s Jamie Little during the broadcast. "We had such a fun week and I hate to end the race before it got started. I’m disappointed for everybody. We’ll look past it and get on to Atlanta."

    The crash tore up his car’s front end and ended any hope of winning the race.

    "He got a little tailwind off Turn 4 and ripped the nose right off the car," said Fox NASCAR analyst Darrell Waltrip. "Boom."

    "What a disappointing way to start the race," said Jeff Gordon, also a Fox NASCAR analyst. "So many high hopes."

    Those hopes are still high for the new No. 24, but clearly, inexperience and early, aggressive racing by the 500 field kicked Elliott out of contention in Florida.

Winner: Carl Edwards

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Carl Edwards dodged a 24-shaped bullet on Lap 19 when Chase Elliott zipped across Edwards’ front splitter.

    Lap 57 was a different beast.

    Brian Vickers, subbing for the injured Tony Stewart, tapped the rear of a braking Joey Logano. Logano sped on, but the bump created a chain reaction that kicked Trevor Bayne into Edwards.

    Edwards then hit the wall and busted up the right front of his Toyota.

    "You guys got any ideas on how to fix it better?" Edwards asked over the radio (h/t NASCAR writer Richard Allen’s Twitter feed).

    The No. 19 crew got to working. First, Edwards dropped all the way back to 39th, where he was a lap down. He fought and fought and fought, eventually getting into the top five with a splitter that looked more like a kite.

    How did you do it, Carl?

    "I don’t know," Edwards said on Fox.

    Okay.

    "I've got a great group of guys," he said.

    Well, that's good.

    "It’s a perfect race car," he said. "After all the wind-tunnel stuff, it appears that’s good for fifth place. When we go back and do it for next time, we might take some notes there."

    That was an amazing set of hurdles the No. 19 team overcame. Expect a big year, two to three wins, out of this camp in 2016.

Loser: Jimmie Johnson

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Jimmie Johnson, like many other top-tier drivers, drove a backup car for the race.

    What on the surface felt like a hindrance seemed to set these guys free. Johnson led 18 laps and was definitely a contender until his pit crew got happy feet.

    Andrew Lawrence, blogging for SI.com, wrote, "The biggest loser in this pit sequence is Jimmie Johnson. His crew came over the wall too soon, which means he'll go back to the pack—again—and fight his way through."

    It proved to be far too many hurdles, even for such a skilled driver, to overcome. Despite having about 40 laps to go, he couldn’t climb from that trench and ultimately finished 16th.

Winner: Jeff Gordon

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Can we give it up for Jeff Gordon?

    It was a day where rookies got their splitters handed to them and Gordon thrived.

    Occasionally, during some of the introductions, Gordon wasn’t quite as polished as someone who has been doing this for decades, but he was great.

    Gordon offered tons of valuable insight. He still has the stink of a driver, so his analysis felt far more vibrant and relevant than even Darrell Waltrip’s. Waltrip saying, "You have to get to the lead if you want to win the race," was something right out of Parks and Recreation.

    All in all, Gordon gets a solid "A" for his performance. He looked like he’s been doing this for years.

    Good on ya, Gordy.

Loser: First-Year Entrants

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    Dow Graham/Associated Press

    As an addendum to the Chase Elliott slide, two more first-time Daytona 500 starters in Matt DiBenedetto and 2015 Xfinity Series champion Chris Buescher took part in a simultaneous—though somehow exclusive—crash on Lap 92.

    It was a vicious impact to the same region of the wall where both cars hit head on. DiBenedetto exited his car and looked like 1987 Mike Tyson had punched him in the jaw.

    "I’m fine, just knocked the wind out of me," DiBenedetto said during the broadcast. "I just hate it for my guys. I’m glad I made the Daytona 500, but once the fuel run went farther, we got loose and handling was key. It was my fault, nobody to blame but myself."

    As for Buescher, he told MRN (h/t USA Today’s Jeff Gluck’s Twitter feed), "We were having so much fun. I hate that I'm standing here right now."

    Sunday at Daytona chewed up the first-year guys. With all those aggressive moves made by rookies and vets alike, drivers lacking experience were at a particular disadvantage throughout the race.

    Ryan Blaney saved the day for rookies by finishing 19th, though he spent much of the race inside the top 10.

Winner: Kevin Harvick

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick finished fourth, just 15-hundredths of a second out of first.

    He earned his way onto Denny Hamlin’s Christmas card list with the bump on the final lap. But it was a save on Lap 18 that kept Harvick on the track and in this position.

    Turbulent air kicked him toward the apron, and Harvick successfully righted the ship and kept his nose clean.

    "I think if you look at our day, that first big slide, we could have been on the record pretty early in this race," Harvick said on the broadcast.

    Harvick was positioning himself to threaten the leaders late in the race, but it was Hamlin who beat him to the spot.

    "I wanted to be the first car on that outside line," said Harvick. "I really thought they’d start pushin’ and shovin’ like they did and finally get some momentum coming toward the end of the race. Denny saw that momentum and was able to jump up in front us."

    Harvick proved, yet again, he’s got the horsepower to be a consistent top-five car. It appears 2016 will be every bit as kind to the No. 4 team as 2014 and 2015.

    That’s a nightmare scenario for all the other drivers.

Loser: Amelia

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Hendrick Motorsports lost another car at Calamity Corner when Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevy, affectionately dubbed "Amelia," got loose and careened into the wall.

    Mike Joy, Fox’s announcer, said, "And the favorite appears to be out of the Daytona 500."

    Junior exited the car and watched as it was towed away to the garage for the final 30 laps.

    Earnhardt told Fox during the broadcast:

    That caught me by surprise. I was trying to side-draft and it pinned the right front. We’ve been working on the balance all day, we underestimated the handling all day. We had a rocket all week. We gotta do a little more drafting next time back. We were starting to move forward, getting aggressive, just lost it.

    Under the weight of great expectations, desperation forced his hand. He had a strong car early but lacked front-tire grip through the middle and latter portions of the race.

    In an effort to force the issue and get into striking distance, Junior’s car loosened at 195 mph and effectively halved the number of cars owner Rick Hendrick could call a contender.

    This was a big, big disappointment. Junior, who finished 36th, was the heavy favorite, and going out the way he did will do little for morale.

Winner: Martin Truex Jr.

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    David Graham/Associated Press

    So close, so very, very close. This was agony-of-defeat territory.

    Martin Truex Jr. won’t sleep well Sunday night. This is one of those rare times when finishing second, even when the silver lining is so shiny, really stings. This burns like hydrogen peroxide in an open cut.

    "I did all I thought I could do," Truex said after the race on Fox. "I had it till the Daytona [signage] over there on the wall, and it couldn’t have been 20 feet from the line. He just side-drafted me."

    Which left Truex with one more option.

    "I should have run him up a little bit more," said Truex. "I thought we were close enough where we could keep that foot or so, but I couldn’t. I lost it in the last second."

    Truex, like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, drove a backup car to near perfection.

    The performance validated how Truex drove a year ago. If he keeps up this kind of effort with the new Toyota engines, he’ll be Chase-bound come September.

Loser: Matt Kenseth

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    What direction do you take with Matt Kenseth?

    Is he a winner because he took a backup car from 40th to leading the final lap?

    Or is he a loser despite making a winning move that ultimately cost him a top-five finish?

    Given that he finished a valiant 14th, falling 13 spots, decidedly knights Kenseth a loser in this context.

    "They don’t get more crushing than that," Kenseth said during the Fox broadcast. "These Camrys were just unbelievable [sic] fast. That was definitely the position I wanted to be in. All three of my teammates were awesome today and our adopted teammate Martin."

    Kenseth had qualified second behind Elliott, but a late crash in the Can-Am Duels forced him into the seat of a backup car, one in which he led 40 laps on the day.

    "I saw Denny had the run," Kenseth said. "I really felt like he was going fast enough and he was going to go around me if I didn’t block him. I tried to get in front of him to get some momentum and couldn’t do it. He just got me turned sideways and I got out of the gas."

    It's amazing that Kenseth kept his car—and the field—together so the finish was smooth and subsequently thrilling.

Winner: The Deliverminator

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    David Graham/Associated Press

    Well, shoot, the Deliverminator showed his guts with his fearless driving on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

    Think of the context. Drivers, by this point, know someone will move. It’s a matter of who and, more importantly, when. Should they be the one or wait?

    Denny Hamlin chose himself.

    He swung to the outside, where Saint Harvick howitzered Hamlin into the fray. The move forced Matt Kenseth’s hand before Hamlin successfully ducked into the middle for the winning move.

    "I don’t know where that came from," Hamlin said on the broadcast. "I don’t know how that happened. It all just came together. I got the push from [Harvick]. This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for Toyotas sticking together all race long."

    The win is Joe Gibbs’ first since Dale Jarrett won the 500 in 1993.

    The win also punches Hamlin’s ticket to the Chase, a nice load off his shoulders for the next 25 races.