Feb 15, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT
After winning last year’s season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Denny Hamlin picked up where he left off by starting the new 2014 season with a win in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
Hamlin, who started the night from the pole, was the class of the field, leading 27 laps across the three segments of the 75-lap exhibition race to win the entire event.
It was further affirmation that Hamlin is fully back from last year’s devastating wreck early in the year at Fontana, Calif., that knocked him out for four races and forced him to drive in pain for most of the remainder of the season.
But his win at Homestead was the best medicine Hamlin could ask for and provided momentum and motivation not only coming into Saturday night’s race, but certainly for next Sunday’s Daytona 500 and the rest of the 36-race season.
“The best car won, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. “We’re two in a row and building on something. It was survival of the fittest, for sure. With three (laps) to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack and it’s really hard to get a run, but this car was just phenomenal.”
What started as an 18-driver field ended with only eight cars remaining at the end. Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman.
With a full moon shining down on the track, it was perhaps one of the strangest nights of racing NASCAR has seen in a long time.
It started with defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spinning out by himself and ending his night early by slamming into the inside retaining wall on the final lap of the first segment, a 30-lap affair.
On the sixth lap of the 25-lap second segment, a massive nine-car wreck brought out a race-stopping red flag. The mayhem began when Matt Kenseth cut down on the front end of Joey Logano, triggering the wreck.
The night grew even stranger when the final part of the big wreck resulted in Stenhouse slamming into the side of his girlfriend’s car.
Stenhouse was unable to see where he was going due to damage incurred in the first split seconds of the crash. To her credit, Patrick avoided all of the slamming and banging around her and slid to a stop – only to have her boyfriend run into her and end her night.
Earlier in the day, hours before the Sprint Unlimited during practice for Sunday’s front row qualifying session, Patrick and Stewart suffered motor failure in engines leased from Hendrick Motorsports. Patrick and Stewart drove different cars with different motors in the Sprint Unlimited.
But wait, it got even stranger: As Hamlin and the other eight drivers that were left to start the final segment came to the green flag, the pace car caught fire! (See video below)
The pace car was quickly brought to a halt and track fire and safety personnel converged upon it to put out the small blaze — certainly nothing like the inferno that took place in the 2012 Daytona 500 when Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into the rear of a track jet dryer.
Other things of note in Saturday’s strange night:
* Kyle Busch went on a wild single-car ride when he spun out in the third segment, but was able to regain control and continue on early in the final segment, rallying for a third-place finish.
* Dale Earnhardt Jr. was knocked out of the race midway through the final 20-lap segment when he was hooked into the outside retaining wall by Marcos Ambrose.
Before taking his mangled car to the garage, Earnhardt managed to catch up with Ambrose on the track and expressed his displeasure at what happened.
But after climbing from his car and watching a TV replay, Earnhardt backed off on fully blaming Ambrose for the incident.
“It looks like I was trying to get down there and Marcos went to the outside and I didn’t know he was there,” Earnhardt said. “Hard racing and I hate to have it happen.
“I was upset with him, but I can’t really say it was his fault. He was going to the outside and I didn’t know he was up there. I thought he was staying with me because he’d been pushing me down the straightaway. I thought he was committed to that situation, and a lot was happening right there, and we just got turned around.”
While Earnhardt’s night was over at that point, Ambrose was able to continue on.
All in all, the Sprint Unlimited may not have played out the way many had hoped, but in the end a strange night ended with an exciting finish and a great storyline for the winning driver. We can only hope that next Sunday’s Daytona 500 plays out that well.
Follow me @JerryBonkowski
Apr 21, 2014, 10:45 AM EDT
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso continues to extract the maximum – and then some – of a car that is maybe third or fourth best in the field at the moment.
Apr 21, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
We compare each driver’s tally for the first four races of the 2013 and 2014 seasons – three of the five world champions on the grid are worse off.
Apr 21, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
A rather drab race in China, but Mercedes won’t mind after extending its championship lead once again.
Apr 21, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
Button and Magnussen can only bring their cars home in 11th and 13th on Sunday in China.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Former Red Bull F1 driver finishes third, while Porsche’s GTE-Pro squads finish 1-2 in class.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
Trophies and big paychecks are no longer the only things a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and team get when they win a race. Now they get a big breakfast, too. According to Statesville.com, the Boxcar Grille in Statesville, N.C., has begun serving breakfast to winning teams in the Charlotte area after they return from capturing a Cup race.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
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Apr 20, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
While he probably can’t throw a football more than 20 or 30 yards, Chad Knaus is a diehard Carolina Panthers fan. And while football and stock car racing are polar opposites, they do have some similarities, particularly when it comes to team building, success, strategy and preparation for each game or race. Knaus, a six-time Sprint Cup champion crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, recently called Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera to throw around and share ideas that might be beneficial to both men.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:49 PM EDT
Hermie Sadler will never be confused with former wrestling greats Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin – not even Rik “Wooooo” Flair. But the NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports 1 has been a longtime fan of wrestling and will now become somewhat of a decision maker, too.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:58 PM EDT
Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, and Nicolas Lapierre take the No. 8 Toyota to the win in the Six Hours of Silverstone.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:07 PM EDT
More than 20 years after graduating, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going back to school. Well, for at least one day. Earnhardt will take part in a two-hour session on May 8 with two student groups, wrapped around an all-school assembly at Seaman High School in Topeka, Kansas, according to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Apr 20, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
We hope your Easter’s filled with family, friends…and maybe some jelly beans.
Apr 20, 2014, 9:45 AM EDT
Finn can only come home in eighth for Ferrari, some 50 seconds behind teammate Fernando Alonso.
Apr 20, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Largely unnoticed, these two youngsters were brilliant today in China.
Apr 20, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
German driver saw no reason to follow team orders, but soon realised that there was no point in holding Ricciardo up.
Apr 20, 2014, 7:15 AM EDT
German driver downbeat after losing to Hamilton yet again, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a great result.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:30 AM EDT
Embarrassing error sees race end on lap 54, not lap 56; Kobayashi the only driver to lose a position.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:15 AM EDT
Ferrari ends torrid week with something to smile about as Alonso finishes third in China.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:47 AM EDT
German driver refuses to let Daniel Ricciardo past at first, but ultimately thinks better of it.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:30 AM EDT
British driver delighted with team effort, and pleased to see teammate Nico Rosberg reach the podium again.
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