At the dawn of yet another season of change, Denny Hamlin gave NASCAR fans something to remember. Around the Track noted Hamlin's "photo-finish" win:
Hamlin's post-race remarks to Fox Sports were typical of the victor's exuberance, but winning the closest Daytona 500 in history was hard to exaggerate.
"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."
The best. The biggest race of my life. The pinnacle of our sport. Michael Jenkins of Comcast Sportsnet was impressed with Hamlin's finished and offered a congratulatory message via Twitter:
It is. It was. Forever it may be.
Now THAT'S a finish. Congratulations to Denny Hamlin. #DAYTONA500— Michael Jenkins (@JenksCSN) February 21, 2016
Hamlin won by a hundredth of a second. Maybe eight to 12 inches. Eight inches that might as well have been the length of a glass slipper that didn't fit Martin Truex Jr.'s fairy-tale dream. Eight inches were the difference between Hamlin's handsome carriage and Truex's large pumpkin.
Poof! Truex's lead disappeared in the final, oh, 20 yards of a 500-mile race. OK, so we tinkered with the tale a bit.
Asked in the post-race press conference to describe the ending, Truex at first said only, "Finished second." It was a heck of a way to get a laugh.
"(Hamlin) just side-drafted me off Turn 4 all the way to the line," Truex said. "I just felt like I had enough momentum to keep him behind me. I did all the way up to the last couple feet. He just shot out that last couple inches on me right before the line.
"I wish I would have crowded him up the track a little bit more, late down the front stretch. Those are split-second decisions. He came out on the right end of it today."
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas began the final lap running in four of the top six positions, led by Matt Kenseth. Hamlin was fifth. Some fretted about "team orders," where, in the name of the greater glory, the other three knights of JGR would form a cadre to protect Kenseth and usher him across the line.
It never works that way. It shouldn't. No fan wants their driver to owe their soul to the company store.
Hamlin popped out ahead of Kevin Harvick's Chevy, beating the former champion and 500 winner to the punch. Then he bulled his way indelicately past teammate Kenseth and...won the race by the aforementioned eight inches.
What do you think was the greatest Daytona 500 ever?
Hamlin the adventurer seized NASCAR's most prestigious race, and the rest of the swashbucklers came home third (Kyle Busch), fifth (Carl Edwards) and in sacrificial 14th (Kenseth).
Greater glory accomplished. Joe Gibbs still smiles.
"The last thing I wanted to do was wreck off Turn 4 with my Toyota teammates and none of us win," Hamlin said. "We had talked about a plan overnight to just work together, work together and I’ve never seen it executed so flawlessly as what we did today."
Hamlin's was not an unjaded view.
NASCAR could scarcely have been happier. Well, maybe if Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man who began the day as the favorite, hadn't crashed. He led only 15 laps and spent much of the day snarled in traffic, spinning his wheels, until the 170th lap, when he lost control of his picturesque blue-and-silver Chevrolet, and thousands of fans made a hasty retreat to the parking lots they would shortly regret and, in the future, quite likely, lie about.
"We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today," Earnhardt said. "We've had a rocket all week, but it was in single-car runs, and at the night races, the car has handled great."
No excuses, though. It isn't Earnhardt's style. "Just busted my butt there," he said. "Driver mistake."
Miraculously, it was not, as widely anticipated, a day of fiery crashes and destruction. Lots of drivers—most notably Earnhardt and rookie pole winner Chase Elliott—had difficulty "hanging on," but none of the race's five crashes collected more than three cars. Hanging on was difficult. Avoiding seemed easier.
Elliott, Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate and Jeff Gordon's successor in the No. 24 Chevy, led the first three laps before being banished to the repair shop after Lap 19. He sounded like a political candidate after a disappointing primary.
"We will just have to look past it and get on to Atlanta," he told Fox Sports. "That is the most important thing now. Can't get caught up in what happened today. It's irrelevant now. We'll try and get it fixed and make some laps. Then it’s on to Atlanta, and if we can make some laps, we will and move forward from here."
For Hamlin, Daytona International Speedway has been an acquired taste. In points-earning races, it took him eight tries to collect a top-five finish and five more to get a second, although the last five of those at NASCAR's most famous track have been second, sixth, fourth, third and first. He's also won the Sprint Unlimited three times—most recently last weekend.
This counts as getting the hang of it.
By contrast to a year ago, and too many recent Daytona 500s, NASCAR has a nice claim to the public's imagination on which to build. It was a stirring spectacle—one that managed to be exciting without being unduly dangerous. Everyone walked away. No rain delay. No collision with a track dryer.
Good, clean fun.
"We're a team," Gibbs said. "It's four cars, four drivers, four crew chiefs. We're all together. But, man, you know what a heartbreak that is."
In the Daytona 500, ecstasy is greatly outweighed by agony.
Such is the toll a classic sporting event exacts on its combatants.
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All quotes were obtained from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.