Sunday, in his 11th attempt, driving car #11, Denny Hamlin won the thrilling 58th Daytona 500, the first 500 victory of his career.
Hamlin picked up the biggest win of his career by coming from fourth on the final lap, passing leader Matt Kenseth before beating Martin Truex Jr. to the line by mere inches. The margin of victory of 0.010 seconds was the closest in Daytona 500 history.
The win marked the first Daytona 500 victory for Toyota, and the first for owner Joe Gibbs since 1993 (Dale Jarrett).
Hamlin entered Daytona Speedweeks as one of my favorites, and his car showed speed all week leading up to the 500, but leading up to the race, Hamlin was not historically in a great position to win his first Daytona 500.
Consider the trends of the Daytona 500 throughout its 58-year history, and particularly over the last 15 years of restrictor plate racing (although restrictor plate racing has been around since 1988, it has been most similar to today’s restrictor plate racing only since 2001).
Last weekend, Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, a season-opening exhibition race at Daytona. Before 2016, the winner of the Sprint Unlimited had only gone on to win the 500 five times, and had never done it since 2000 (Bobby Allison in 1982, Bill Elliott in 1987, Dale Jarrett in 1996 and 2000, and Jeff Gordon in 1997).
In fact, over the nearly six-decade history of the Daytona 500, a driver who has won any of the preliminary events during Speedweeks generally does not win the Daytona 500, but instead someone who has shown speed and performed well but not won in the Sprint Unlimited, Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying, and Can-Am Duels.
Another potential strike against Hamlin’s chances to win, at least according to the trends of the previous 15 editions of “The Great American Race”, is that he led the most laps. While early in the 500’s history, it was common for one driver to dominate the race and take the checkered flag, Hamlin became just the third driver since 2001 to lead the most laps and win, joining Michael Waltrip in the rain-shortened 2003 edition, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.
Lastly, Hamlin was not the leader at the white flag, but found a way around all three of the cars in front of him to beat Truex by inches. Hamlin becomes only the third driver in the last 23 Daytona 500s to make a last-lap pass for the win, joining Kevin Harvick in 2007 (who ironically pushed Hamlin to the win), and Ryan Newman in 2008 (who, like Hamlin, passed a #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota).
Not only are last-lap passes to win the 500 rare, but throughout Speedweeks it appeared the leader at the white flag would have control over the pack, and would be very hard to pass them.
Kenseth had actually led from lap 160 of the 200-lap race until the third turn of the final lap when Hamlin and Truex got around (in fact, after Kenseth got sideways, he slowed to save his car from spinning out, and as a result fell back to 14th). The leader at the white flag had won every stock car event so far during Speedweeks, including Hamlin, who was not hardly threatened over the final 2 1/2 miles of the Sprint Unlimited.
With a train of Gibbs Toyotas behind Kenseth, plus Truex in a Gibbs-affiliated Furniture Row Racing Toyota, it did not appear that Kenseth, a two-time 500 winner, would be touched.
After his 500 win, Hamlin told Marty Smith of ESPN that he did not intend to jump out of line to try to pass his teammates, but only moved to the outside to block a run by Harvick, who then pushed him to the win.
You might think it would be common sense that a driver would want to be leading at the white flag, but there have been years that the aerodynamic environment of the cars made passing easier, and in some of those years I have said before the 500 that I would want to be second at the white flag if I were driving in the race.
All of this being said, Hamlin winning NASCAR’s biggest event is a surprise to no one in the sport. Hamlin’s win in the Sprint Unlimited was his third in that event, and he has also won twice in the Can-Am Duels, so he has experience winning at the World Center of Racing.
The thing about trends is that they are not always followed, as is the case here. Three trends went against Denny Hamlin’s chances to win his first Daytona 500, but a car that was one of the favorites throughout Speedweeks, and showed plenty of muscle from the time it was unloaded, enabling Hamlin to nullify all of the tendencies above, and win by less than a foot.
With his prior prowess on the superspeedway, and his amazing run from fourth to the front, one thing is for sure.
Denny Hamlin’s name will forever be engraved on the Harley J. Earl Trophy. And he earned it.
2016 Daytona 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 95, 45
2. Martin Truex Jr., 28, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 2, 40
3. Kyle Busch, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 19, 39
4. Kevin Harvick, 9, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 37
5. Carl Edwards, 10, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 36
6. Joey Logano, 5, Team Penske, Ford, 0, 35
7. Kyle Larson, 14, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
8. Regan Smith, 27, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 33
9. Austin Dillon, 21, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 33
10. Kurt Busch, 8, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
14. Matt Kenseth, 2, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 40, 28
16. Jimmie Johnson, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 18, 26
20. Brad Keselowski, 25, Team Penske, Ford, 1, 22
36. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 3, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 6
37. Chase Elliott, 1, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 3, 5