No one ever said NASCAR was boring, but if there were any doubters then they missed the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night. Denny Hamlin, in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, took the checkered flag in a race that could have been mistaken for a demolition derby at times. There was so much bumping and grinding going on, and a spectacular crash, that only eight from a field of 18 crossed the finish line.
Though the race is an exhibition race only, there are no points awarded, it is seen as a bit of a shake down for the Daytona 500 which is being held next Sunday. The race format was voted on by fans who broke it into three segments. The first segment was 30 laps, the second 25, and the third 20. They also voted on grid placement using practice speeds, which put Hamlin on pole.
With no points at stake, drivers and teams can tinker and push, and there was a lot of pushing going on. Hamlin took the first segment while Jimmie Johnson lost it on the Turn 4 exit. During the second of three segments, on lap 36, Matt Kenseth sliced in front of Joey Logano and they made contact which triggered a nine-car pileup.
Caught up in the carnage was Tony Stewart who was returning from a horrific accident last August. He was OK, but his race was over. Danika Patrick spun through the carnage and was left facing the approaching cars, one of which was her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who tagged her good, putting them both out of the race. Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards were also put out of the opening NASCAR Sprint Unlimited.
Kenseth later commented, “I had no idea anybody was inside of me.” When the race resumed 11 minutes later, nine drivers were left to scrap it out with Hamlin managing to fend off Brad Keselowski to take the second segment.
The third segment provided as much excitement as the second, as of all things, the pace car burst into flames. The driver of the car hit the brakes as smoke, then fire billowed from the rear of the car.
When the race restarted Dale Earnhardt Jr. led for much of the third segment but was then put into the wall by Marcos Ambrose on lap 66. When the green came on again Keselowski and Logano forged into the lead but with two laps to go Hamlin made his move. He charged down the inside and managed to hold off the others to take the flag. Keselowski in a Penske Racing Ford was second, Hamlin’s teammate, Kyle Busch was third.
It was a dream come true for Hamlin, who had a disastrous 2013 season in which he broke his back. That injury put him out of five races and hobbled him for the rest of the year. He did finish 2013 on a high note though with a win in the last race of the season. It looks like he maintained that momentum through the off season to take the opening NASCAR Sprint Unlimited at Daytona. “There’s no negatives that come out of a day like today,” he said.
By Scott Wilson