The Racing Capital
of the World
Jul 26, 2015
February 21, 2014 | By Bruce Martin
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After sweeping both races in Thursday night’s Budweiser Duel 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona, Joe Gibbs Racing has placed themselves as the team to beat in Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth won a thrilling three-wide fight to the checkered flag to win Race No. 1, and Denny Hamlin went two-for-two at Daytona this year as last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited race winner defeated three-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon to the checkered flag in a race that ended with a massive fiery crash behind them.
By winning both of Thursday night’s qualifying races – the first time these contests have been held at night at Daytona International Speedway – it will be an all JGR second row with Kenseth starting third and Hamlin fourth in Toyota Camrys behind the all-Chevy front row of rookie Austin Dillon the pole and Martin Truex, Jr. on the outside.
Kenseth and Hamlin, along with fellow JGR driver Kyle Busch, will attempt to give team owner Joe Gibbs his first Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett in 1993.
“We've come with great cars over the years,” said Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. “It shows you what a tough race this is, the Daytona 500. Like I said, we won once and it’s probably one of the greatest sporting experiences I've ever had. I was thrilled.
“This race is extremely, extremely hard to win, the 500. That probably says it the best. That says it the best, over 22 years, that's a bunch.
“I know this: you win one of these, these Daytona 500s, it's one of the greatest experiences,” said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. “That day we got lost, we didn't know what to do, where Victory Lane was. (Later that night) We wound up at the Steak and Shake. There were about 15 people in there hammered, we showed up with the trophy, out in the parking lot taking pictures with our family.”
Hamlin was first to the checkered flag in a race that finished with a massive crash behind him that saw six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson catch on fire and Clint Bowyer’s car flip completely over before landing on all four wheels. Also, two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip’s Toyota ran into the opening of the pit wall.
“I think Jimmie ran out of gas,” Bowyer said after his wild ride. “I knew he was saving gas coming to the green. It’s too bad to tear cars up like that. That was one of the wildest flips I’ve ever had. I think we would have been just fine if I hadn’t hit the grass right here.
The crash was triggered when Johnson’s car slowed and Jamie McMurray’s car ran into the pack of his Chevrolet sending it crashing into the wall.
Johnson was running out of fuel and that is why he slowed and ultimately caused the incident.
“I did, and I feel terrible,” Johnson said. “To tear up that many race cars; to see the No. 15 flip. I feel terrible, and certainly want to apologize to everyone. I tried to get up out of the way; I had my hand out of the side. But last lap coming to the checkered, there is so much going on right there. So much energy in the pack that I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out because guys warned me about it – and it did. Thankfully everyone is alright, and I certainly feel bad for the torn up race cars.
“I’m fine. I feel terrible all these cars that were caught up in that crash. I ran out of gas, man at the most inopportune time right in front of everybody. I feel terrible. Thankfully it looks like everybody is okay, but a lot of great race cars were torn up. Clint (Bowyer) flipped over. I just feel real bad about it. Certainly glad everybody was alright.”
Hamlin finished the race as the winner just ahead of three-time Daytona 500 winner Gordon’s Chevrolet. Kurt Busch was third in a Chevrolet followed by Paul Menard’s Chevrolet and Brian Scott’s Chevrolet in a race that officially ends under caution.
And by winning his second Daytona race in as many attempts this week, he has strongly solidified his position in the Daytona 500.
“We just keep doing what we're doing,” Hamlin said. “We're on a roll, obviously. We executed the race today great. We didn't execute the first part of the race that well, trying to make moves, trying not to run single file. I kind of wanted to spice things up a little bit. It ended up taking me to the rear for the most part. But fought our way back.
“Really, the goal was just to get ourselves in the position, somewhere in the top 10, within a second of those guys when they pitted, so I could rely on my pit crew to try to do the rest.
“We performed a great pit stop, really got out there with a lead. I was a little worried about how big of a lead we had off of pit road, but everything kind of worked out good. The 2 kind of gave me a shove as he's coming in for a pit road penalty. That kept my momentum up to stay ahead of the pack.
“After that, just kind of watched and learned what happened in the first Duel with the 20. He decided to keep the high line going even on the white flag lap. I felt like going ahead and protecting bottom early with a lap to go was better for us. Either way, we still came out on top. So it's a good executed race.”
Casey Mears, who had to pit on the final lap because his car was out of fuel, was able to make it into the field by being on pit road and missing the big wreck. Landon Cassill was the last driver to transfer into the field based on his ninth-place finish in the race.
Brad Keselowski led a 12-car breakaway after 27 laps in the 60-lap Duel that also included Edwards, Gordon, Bowyer and Kurt Busch.
Most of the field pitted with 24 laps to go with Keselowski getting right-side tires and Gordon fuel only. Keselowski was able to get off pit road ahead of Gordon but he was nailed for exceeding pit road speed, which meant a pass-through penalty taking him out of contention for the victory. What made it ironic is Keselowski had the last pit stall on pit road but passed two cars on exit.
Keselowski brought the Ford down pit road with 21 laps to go and Hamlin was the leader ahead of Kurt Busch and Gordon. Keselowski, however, flat-spotted his tires as he hit pit road and had a flat-tire with 20 laps left in the race.
That sent the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion dropping from first to last in the 24-car field after he led one time for 34 laps. Hamlin would lead 23 laps and score the victory.
Terry Labonte and Trevor Bayne were the two drivers that raced their way into the field for Sunday’s race through the second Daytona Duel.
In the first race, Kenseth defeated Kevin Harvick by .022 of a seconds – about one and a half feet – in a three-wide finish that also included Kasey Kahne in an impressive finish to Thursday night’s first Budweiser Duel 150 qualifying race for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Harvick’s Chevrolet, however, failed post-race technical inspection when NASCAR officials found the track bar exceeded the maximum split (3-inches of adjustment). That means his finishing position from Thursday will be disallowed and he will have to make it into the field through qualification times posted in last Sunday’s time trials, or the car owner points that belonged to Ryan Newman last year when he was the driver at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Among the drivers that raced their way into the Daytona 500 field were Josh Wise, Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman. Bowman finished 15th, the final automatic transfer spot into the Daytona 500.
Harvick’s Chevrolet had nudged ahead of Kenseth’s Toyota coming out of the fourth turn but Kenseth went to the outside nearly brushing the SAFER Barrier to make the race-winning pass at the checkered flag.
“I had a strong Toyota Camry and Kevin is one of the best,” Kenseth said. “He made the perfect move, but I was able to get him at the line. This is a great way to start off 2014. I’m glad to get the win here tonight. These guys really deserve it.”
Harvick thought he had timed his move perfectly but it may have been too soon.
“I had the momentum and when those guys got to me and were jammed up, I had to make the move,” Harvick said. “We tried to side-draft and then we nearly both lost it because I saw the 5 (Kahne) come up alongside.”
Marcos Ambrose was fourth in a Ford followed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Bowman, a rookie from Tucson, Ariz., will start his first Daytona 500 on Sunday.
“We went across the start/finish line and I wasn’t sure where I ended up, but my crew chief told me we made it,” Bowman said. “This really means a lot and it’s huge for me and my family. We’re in the Daytona 500. It really means a lot.”
All 60 laps in the race were contested under green flag conditions, which meant the one pit stop in the race would be very important.
Many of the front half of the field came down pit road with 23 laps to go. On the next lap, Earnhardt smoked his tires getting on the brakes to come down pit road and lead another group of drivers into the pits. Most of the drivers made fuel-only stops and did not change tires, and the ones that made four-tire changes had plenty of ground to make up to the lead group of cars.
Earnhardt “flat-spotted” his tires entering pit road, but did not change them and that caused some concern about the handling of his car. However, he was up to fifth place with just 10 laps to go and Matt Kenseth in the lead.
Kenseth remained in front with five laps to ahead of Harvick, Kahne, Logano and Marcos Ambrose. He was able to hold off Harvick’s “side-drafting” strategy that momentarily gave him the lead before Kenseth went to the high-side to nab the checkered flag.
Harvick does not get credit for the second-place finish because of the technical violation, so Kasey Kahne is officially the second place finisher.
The five drivers that did not make the Daytona 500 are Ryan Truex, Joe Nemechek, Eric McClure, Michael McDowell and Morgan Shepherd.
After leading 86 laps in last year’s Daytona 500, Kenseth has once again placed himself in position to be a leading candidate to win on Sunday.
“The race ended up unfolding great for us,” Kenseth said. “We learned a lot in the race. I had the car in some positions that I wouldn't want to do again if I had to do it over. I was able to make some moves, get up to second behind Junior (Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) there for a long time, and ultimately take the lead. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) had a great call on a great pit stop. I was able to hold the lead.
“At the end, I saw Kevin making that move. You weren't going to be able to block it without wrecking. I just tried to get back to him and thankfully I had enough time to get that run to the finish line.”
While Joe Gibbs didn’t want to talk about the long Daytona 500 drought, it was his son, J.D. that brought it up after Kenseth’s win.
“It's been so long since we won the 500, I think it was '93, so we're due a few,” said J.D. Gibbs, the team president. “Hopefully we can get that accomplished. We just have a great team. Matt, Jason, the whole team just kind of gets it. They're hard workers. They're really fun to be with.
“It's been a long time. We've got some good cars, but it's just really hard to do. Stuff outside your control has to fall together.
“I hope we have a shot, but it's hard to do.”