February 16, 2014 | By Bruce Martin
Hamlin Survives Wreckfest in NASCAR Sprint Unlimited
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Crashes limited the field in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway and Denny Hamlin’s bold move by nearly driving under the yellow line on the backstretch with 1-1/2 laps left allowed him to drive to victory.
“Any questions?” Hamlin radioed to his crew after taking the victory.
It was Hamlin’s second victory in this exhibition preliminary race to the Daytona 500 in his nine attempts. He won this race as a rookie 2006 – the only rookie ever to win this contest.
“The best car won; that’s for sure,” Hamlin said. “We had a great car all weekend. It was survival of the fittest for sure. This car was phenomenal.”
Hamlin’s Toyota finished ahead of Brad Keselowski’s Ford. Kyle Busch, who spun out in the final segment but was able to continue in the race, finished third to give Joe Gibbs Racing two cars in the top three.
“Denny’s on a mission – I think he lost too much time sitting on the sidelines so he has a lot to make up for,” Busch said. “He’s on fire right now. He’s good. He’s fast. He’s ready. It was nice to see us be able to rebound and finish third. It was disappointing to see the 20 (Matt Kenseth) have their issues. I think JGR as a whole is fast here and we have shown some speed and smarts here.”
Joey Logano’s Ford was fourth followed by 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick’s Chevrolet.
That was the end result of a crash-filled event that had far too few cars running at the end with eight of the 18 starters making it to the finish.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was the first to crash when he was heading out of the fourth turn at the conclusion of the 30-lap initial segment. He lost control of his Chevrolet coming out of the fourth turn and slid across the asphalt apron before slamming into the infield retaining wall to end his race.
It was a massive crash on Lap 37 that involved all four of the Stewart-Haas Racing cars including two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Harvick and 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick. The crash was triggered when Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano made contact with each on the tri-oval. Stewart ran into the back of Kenseth’s car sending the rear of the car into the air. Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon’s Chevy then slammed into the back of Stewart’s car and Kurt Busch’s car jacked up the rear-end of Gordon’s Chevy.
Stewart was driving in his first race since he suffered a badly broken leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa on August 5.
“I’m not a big fan of blocking, but unfortunately that is what you have to do,” Stewart said. “A few more inches here and there and we would have got out of it. I’m trying to figure out how that 10 car (Patrick) got caught up in it, but she got hit. The leg feels fine but we’ll see how the adrenaline feels after it wears off in about an hour.”
By the time it was over nine cars were involved in the crash including Kurt Busch, Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse, Carl Edwards, Harvick, Patrick, Gordon, Kenseth and Logano.
Patrick would have missed the carnage, but in an effort to avoid the spinning cars she dropped the two left-side wheels into the grass and that sent her sliding back up the track. Her boyfriend, Stenhouse, slammed into the side of her Chevrolet and that was it for those two.
“All I know is I hit something really hard there,” Stenhouse said. “I couldn’t stop and tried to look over the hood and then I saw it was her. She would have been all right if I had not hit her, so that’s not good. We tore up a lot tonight.
“I didn’t see anything from the time it started to the time it ended. Talking to Danica when I got in there that I drilled her when she was pretty much sitting still. I couldn’t see, couldn’t turn and just really destroyed our Ford. I was up around the top and just tried to slow down as much as I could and then all of a sudden I saw the underneath body of the 41 (Kurt Busch). He was pretty much on the roof and I couldn’t see, and after that the hood was up in the way and I couldn’t get out of gear and couldn’t steer. Everything was all bent up, so that’s not the way we wanted it to end, but I thought we learned a lot through the first 35 laps of it, but I definitely would have liked to finish it.”
After getting checked at the infield care center Patrick tried to explain what happened.
“I’m bummed it got cut short, but it was a good warm-up for me to get used to the closing rates and getting bumped and hanging on to it,” Patrick said. “As soon as the accident happened I went low, clipped the grass and spun and then I got hit by my boyfriend, what a bummer. His hood was up and he couldn’t see anything.”
The race was red-flagged for 11 minutes, 25 seconds. When the race resumed there were just nine cars running for the remainder of the 25-lap second segment and the final 20-lap segment that would determine the winner.
According to Kenseth, he was trying to avoid Keselowski’s car after it slightly slowed.
“Honestly, I had no idea anybody was inside of me or had that run, and I was watching the mirror, but I was also watching Denny Hamlin and in hindsight probably too focused on trying to help my teammate there,” Kenseth said.” “I probably just should have stayed in the top lane and kept going, but I was just easing my way down there and had no idea Joey Logano was so close to me and our cars got hooked together. That’s not the way you want to start your season.
“It appears that I cut off Joey and didn’t leave enough room.”
Hamlin, McMurray and Logano were the leaders at the end of the 25-lap second segment, and during the break all cars had to make a pit stop to change at least two tires with the lineup determined by the order of cars that were off pit road.
To add to the lunacy of this event, the Chevrolet Pace Car caught on fire on the track forcing the safety crew to extinguish the flames as the Pace Car driver and NASCAR official had to bail out of the smoking vehicle. A battery in the trunk used to power the safety lights ignited to cause the fire.
“When you think you’ve seen it all; then you see that,” Keselowski said. “That’s an interesting one there. I just saw the whole back half of the car was on fire. I thought it was a race car, but then it was the pace car. That’s racing.”
After another delay, finally the green flag waved to start the final segment with just nine cars running on the lead lap. Earnhardt got pushed to the lead at the end of the first lap.
With 15 laps to go, Kyle Busch cut off Keselowski’s Ford and was tapped to send his Toyota spinning into the grass. The incident did not damage Busch’s car.
“I was just lucky I didn’t get hit,” Busch said. “As long as nobody messes you up again you can sorta just drive through things. I’ve done it now three times, so I have experience at it where others do not. I was able to continue on in the race. I was two shy (spins) of what I was able to do the last time I did that (when he spun three times and won in 2012.)”
During the caution, Hamlin pitted for four tires. Busch was able to pit to change tires after his spin.
The green flag waved with 12 to go and Earnhardt, the leader, and Logano second. But with 10 laps to go, Earnhardt and Marcos Ambrose made contact while attempting to bump draft and that turned Earnhardt’s Chevrolet into the wall. Earnhardt showed his displeasure after the damage was done by rubbing Ambrose’s Ford on the backstretch after the caution flag flew.
“It looks like I was trying to get down and Marcos went to the outside, and I didn’t know he was up there,” Earnhardt said. “I was upset with him, but it really wasn’t his fault.”
That set up a five-lap green flag run to decide the race with Logano listed as the leader, Keselowski second and McMurray third out of the eight cars still running.
And nothing denied Hamlin of his drive to victory.
““It’s a great win,” he said. “You love starting SpeedWeeks like this. In 2006, it kind of spring-boarded my career into a great year. In 2009, winning Homestead spring-boarded us into a great 2010 and a championship run. There’s no negatives that come out of a day like today.
“It’s big. Every little win, it doesn’t matter whether it’s practice, if it’s happy hour, if it’s qualifying -- every little accomplishment goes a long way with the team moral. I think we’re building on something big here.”
Hamlin was impressed with the nature of the race despite the crash-decimated field.
“I was actually surprised, once the pack got whittled down to five or six cars, I was thinking there’s no way you’re going to get a run. It’s extremely hard to get runs and pass the leader, but we made a three-wide move there and we pushed our teammate up there for a battle for the lead. Coming to the white flag I have to do what I have to do to try to get the win.”
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