On a breathtaking final lap Sunday, Denny Hamlin finished mere inches ahead of Martin Truex Jr. to win the 2016 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
It appeared as though Matt Kenseth was going to hold off the challengers for the checkered flag. Hamlin, receiving a helping hand from Kevin Harvick, was quickly gaining ground on the outside, though. Coming around the final turn, Hamlin saw a window of opportunity, first looking to pass Kenseth on the right before darting left and surging into the lead.
Hamlin and Truex ran side by side right up until the finish line, with Hamlin narrowly crossing first. CBS Sports captured the photo finish:
According to Good Morning America, Hamlin's 0.011-second margin of victory is the closest ever in Daytona 500 history.
Here's a look at the top 10 finishers from the Daytona 500, with the full results available at NASCAR.com:
|Position||Driver||Time Behind||Laps Led|
|2||Martin Truex Jr.||0.011||2|
The way that Hamlin finished will be the dominant theme of the narrative, but only focusing on the final lap somewhat discounts how well the 35-year-old performed over the entirety of the race. He led more laps than any other driver (95) and waited until just the right time before making his move on Kenseth:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. congratulated Hamlin on his triumph:
ESPN Pittsburgh's David Todd, meanwhile, couldn't help but think of the regret that Kenseth is likely feeling:
Wow, what a finish at Daytona. Hell of a drive at the end by Hamlin, but boy Matt Kenseth sure’s going to regret going for the block up high— David Todd (@DavidMTodd) February 21, 2016
Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports highlighted what will be an overlooked aspect of the finish. Kenseth nearly lost control of his car completely before regaining control and settling for 14th:
It's not much comfort to him now, but Kenseth's exceptional driving after taking the bump from the 11 saved a HUGE wreck.— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) February 21, 2016
Sunday was also a day to forget for pole-sitter Chase Elliott. At 20 years old, he was the youngest driver to ever win the Daytona 500 pole when he set the fastest time during the first day of qualifying.
His hopes of capturing the checkered flag were dashed relatively early as he spun out on the 19th lap of the race. Almost all of the damage to Elliott's No. 24 car came when he skidded into the infield grass, with the lip of the grass catching the car's undercarriage, per Fox Sports:
ESPN The Magazine's Ryan McGee offered up his sympathies to both Elliott and the Daytona groundskeepers:
For weeks Chase Elliott's team worked on that car. For weeks the grounds crew worked on that infield grass. Both are rurnt. #DAYTONA500— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) February 21, 2016
Speaking with Fox Sports' Jamie Little, Elliott said he isn't going to dwell on his bad luck for too long:
Elliott won the 2014 Nationwide Series title and finished second in last year's Xfinity Series standings. The Sprint Cup rookie has a bright future ahead, but Sunday was a reminder that his success won't come overnight.
To a slightly lesser extent, Earnhardt ran into bad luck as well. According to Odds Shark, he was the favorite to win the Daytona 500. The No. 88 car led 15 laps on the day and rarely hovered far from the race leaders.
Coming around Calamity Corner, Earnhardt spun out and made contact with the SAFER barrier on the inside of the track, which knocked him out of the race. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Sunday snapped a four-year streak of top-three finishes at the Daytona 500 for Earnhardt.
The Fox cameras (via The Cauldron) caught one Earnhardt fan who took the crash particularly hard:
Pretty sure this guy had Dale Jr in his NASCAR fantasy league https://t.co/92PhvZgRdy— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) February 21, 2016
The Sprint Cup series will shift to the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Feb. 28 at 1 p.m. ET.
Hamlin is essentially a made man going forward, with his Daytona 500 win all but securing him a place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Getting that first win under his belt this early into the season will undoubtedly be a nice feeling for him.
Hamlin deflected the credit for his win Sunday.
"This was a team victory. My teammates did an amazing job all day working together, all the Toyotas," he said, per USA Today's Jeff Gluck. "I don't know where that came from. I can't even figure out what I did. It just all came together, and I got a great push from Kevin Harvick. This wouldn't have happened without all the Toyotas sticking together."
"This is the pennacle (sic) of my career for sure," Hamlin added, per Matt Weaver of Autoweek Racing. "I don't have a championship yet. So this is it."
Even after watching his lead evaporate on the final lap, Kenseth couldn’t help but admire Hamlin’s driving down the stretch, per Kelly Crandall of Popular Speed:
On pit road Kenseth said Hamlin did a "masterful job" on the last lap. Said it's absolutely how you should race for the #DAYTONA500— Kelly Crandall (@KellyCrandall) February 21, 2016
Truex had a similar attitude regarding the finish, per Busbee:
Martin Truex Jr.: "I'm going to have to watch that on a highlight reel for the rest of my life."— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) February 21, 2016
"You'd rather get beaten by a few feet than four inches, yeah," Truex said, shaking his head and smiling in resignation.— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) February 21, 2016
"I did all I thought I could do," he added, per Furniture Row Racing's Twitter account.