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
Mar 9, 2014, 6:48 PM EDT
Joey Logano was the rubber band man in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mar 9, 2014, 6:33 PM EDT
With about 20 laps remaining, crew chief Steve Letarte warned race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he would be about a half-lap shy of enough fuel to finish Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mar 9, 2014, 5:58 PM EDT
Bad Brad sweeps the NASCAR weekend in Sin City.
Mar 9, 2014, 5:29 PM EDT
Kevin Harvick went from halfway to no way in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After leading the race at the 134-lap halfway point of the 267-lap event, Harvick’s bid for back-to-back wins came to an abrupt end when his No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet suffered a broken left front wheel hub…
Mar 9, 2014, 5:15 PM EDT
Richard Petty is going back home to Level Cross, N.C. – the Richard Petty Museum, that is.
Mar 9, 2014, 5:11 PM EDT
The automotive, motorsports and pro football worlds are mourning the death of William Clay Ford, who passed away Sunday from pneumonia, according to a company statement.
Mar 9, 2014, 4:49 PM EDT
The sports car organization ushered in its latest class last night in Charlotte.
Mar 9, 2014, 4:42 PM EDT
Leading the field at the halfway point of Sunday’s 267-lap Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, last week’s race winner at Phoenix, Kevin Harvick, is looking to make it two wins in a row.
Mar 9, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
We all know how difficult it has been over the last six or seven years for teams in all forms of motorsports to obtain sponsorship. While it’s difficult for small teams, it even impacts the biggest of the big, too. NHRA Funny Car legend John Force is in such a predicament. After nearly 30 years with Castrol Oil and more than 15 years with Ford, drag racing’s biggest star ever will be losing both high-profile and high-dollar associations at the end of this season.
Mar 9, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
The 18-year-old Nationwide Series driver won last year’s K&N Pro Series East title.
Mar 9, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT
Pre-race crowd at Las Vegas appears to not know they have a Sprint Cup star among them…
Mar 9, 2014, 1:27 PM EDT
The Texas-based firm provides processors for the ECUs that run the Sprint Cup cars’ fuel-injection systems.
Mar 9, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Former Ferrari and McLaren driver discharged from hospital over the weekend after skiing accident.
Mar 9, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT
Who are Kevin Magnussen, Daniil Kvyat and Marcus Ericsson?
Mar 9, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
Heavy rain forecast for Australian Grand Prix; would be first wet race in almost 18 months.
Mar 9, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
Australian driver ready to race in front of home crowd for the first time as a Red Bull driver.
Mar 9, 2014, 9:47 AM EDT
Spaniard laments lack of testing ahead of new era for Formula 1.
Mar 9, 2014, 7:30 AM EDT
Finn returns to Ferrari after five years away; hopes to repeat win on debut from 2007.
Mar 8, 2014, 10:19 PM EDT
In one moment, the former Sprint Cup champ goes from battling for the lead to battling to save his skidding Toyota.
Mar 8, 2014, 9:09 PM EDT
NASCAR says both issues will be dealt with early next week.
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