If the Unlimited was just a taste of what the Daytona 500 will be like, this is going to get wild.
Daytona Beach, Fla. – When a full-moon occurs on a Saturday night, strange things can happen and that’s exactly what happened in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona as wrecks and a pace car fire spiced the action. When the dust settled, Denny Hamlin raced to victory, winning the event for the second time in nine tries. The Virginia native vaulted from fifth to first on the last restart.
The Sprint Unlimited is a 75-lap made-for-television exhibition run in segments of 30, 25 and 20 laps, as stipulated by fan votes.
Owing to wrecks, the important final segment had only eight cars in the running with Hamlin holding command at the beginning of the run with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch close behind. When the checkered flag dropped, the trio finished in that order.
“The best car won,” said Hamlin, who led 27 of the 75 laps. “Now, we have two wins in a row (including 2013 season finale at Homestead). “It was survival of fittest out there. We are building on something. With three (laps) to go we’re at the tail end of a very small pack and it’s really hard to get runs, but this car was just phenomenal and you saw it those last couple laps.”
“It’s a great win. 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 are no negatives that come out of a day like today.”
Asked about the significance of the win, Hamlin stated, “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 morale.”
Said Keselowski, “It was a race of attrition, and we survived until the end. I came up one spot short, and that’s all that matters. All-in-all, I thought it was good racing, but if you aren’t winning, nothing else matters.”
Busch recovered from a single car, late-race spin to grind out a third-place finish.
“My race was all right, and we had some excitement out there,” he said. “It was an interesting race at the end with so few cars out there. The race was dull out there until we mixed it up later on.”
Commenting on the spin, he laughed, “I have no idea how it happened. In the spin, I used a lot of brake and gas, down-shifted and everything in between. Once I hit the track apron, I didn’t know where straight was. Sometimes you got to let the car go where it wants to.”
Jamie McMurray ended up sixth ahead of Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman. Only eight were running at the end.
The first segment featured close competition, lead changes and non-stop passing. On the final lap of the segment, Jimmie Johnson got loose and slammed into an inside wall.
In segment two, 10 cars wrecked six laps into the run. It started when Matt Kenseth made an aggressive move but didn’t see Logano beside him, triggering a grinding crash on the front stretch. All four cars from Stewart Haas Racing got caught up in the melee, including comeback driver Tony Stewart, who slammed hard into the wall. He emerged from the car unscathed.
Although Harvick’s Chevrolet sustained damage, he did return to the fray.
The race was stopped at this point to allow time to clear the track, and teams were allowed to make repairs during the time-out period. Nine of the 18 starters were running when the race resumed.