Surprising and Not Surprising: The 2016 Daytona 500

After one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history capping off one of the most dominating manufacturer performances ever, here’s what was surprising and not surprising from the Super Bowl of NASCAR, the Daytona 500.

Surprising: After tearing his ACL last season and ending 2015 a disappointing ninth in the final point standings, Denny Hamlin ended Sunday the victor of the 58th annual Daytona 500. It was Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 victory in his eleventh start in the “Great American Race.” It was also the closest margin of victory of any Daytona 500 race of all time, at .010 seconds ahead of second-place Martin Truex Jr.

Hamlin dominated most of the day, leading 95 laps, but the driver of the no. 11 FedEx Toyota came in too fast on the final green flag pit stop and ruined his tires. Michael Wheeler, Hamlin’s rookie crew chief, made an audible and changed four tires instead of the planned two.

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The call hurt the team’s track position and mired the Virginian driver in the ninth-sixth range for much of the final 100 miles. A move up the outside to block Kevin Harvick from getting past his Toyota teammates gave Hamlin the momentum to get around Matt Kenseth and nip Truex at the finish line.

It was Hamlin’s 27th Sprint Cup victory and his second restrictor-plate victory. Including national series victories and exhibition races, Hamlin now has five career victories at Daytona.

“It’s the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” Hamlin said later on in the media center. “I haven’t got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself.”

“Seeing Denny say it’s his biggest race, biggest thing he’s got, makes me happy,” Wheeler also said in the media center following the race. “I’m a small part of this. Racing has a lot to do with the driver, the actual car, people that build that car, with the spotter involved. Just really happy to be a small part of that.”

Not Surprising: Toyota’s overall domination of the Sprint Cup series continues, after sweeping the top three and leading for 157 out of 200 total laps on Sunday.

For much of the latter half of the race, the front three or four cars devolved into a single file Toyota freight train. After the final restart, the first five cars in the dominant bottom lane of the track were all Toyota before the final lap.

Although they faded last season for much of the Chase, JGR has now won 12 of the last 21 Sprint Cup races. Denny Hamlin believes that teamwork was the key to JGR’s second Daytona 500 victory.

“I’m just so proud of all my other teammates for us being so committed to each other for 500 miles today,” Hamlin said post-race. ”That was very rare that you see the selflessness that you saw, even with two laps to go.  All of us were committed to pushing that 20 car to a victory.”

“I think what happened is we came down and our cars were all fast,” Toyota team owner Joe Gibbs added later on. “I think we had good cars. Every time I talked to the drivers, they said, ‘Hey, look, I think we’re pretty good.’ Obviously, there were a lot of other good cars out there.

“The way it worked out for us, Denny was right, it was teamwork.  For us to hang together that long, that’s one thing about our racing, restrictor plate races, if you can ever do that, it’s great. The problem is you can rarely do that. We did it today.”

Surprising: After having to go to a backup car, Martin Truex Jr. spent almost the entire Daytona 500 working with his Toyota teammates in the top five at Joe Gibbs Racing. He ended the day, however, wondering what if.

“Wish I would have crowded [Hamlin] up the track a little bit more late down the frontstretch,”  Truex said. “Those are split-second decisions. He came out on the right end of it today.”

It was the first race for the no. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota after years of running Chevrolets. However, it seems the Barney Visser owned team is already comfortable with their surroundings as JGR’s satellite team.

“We tried for years and years to build a collaboration between Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing,” president of TRD David Wilson said after the race. “We got better. We started sharing more. But it really wasn’t the type of collaboration that we wanted to see happen.

“At the outset when we started talking to Furniture Row, when Joe Gibbs and Barney Visser and ourselves have dinner, I sensed there was a level of trust in each other and a shared value structure that could allow this collaboration to actually succeed. What Martin Truex Jr. did today was huge in saying that he wants to be on this team. I’m incredibly impressed.”

Another Toyota driver asking what if following the race was defending Cup champion Kyle Busch, who settled in line for third instead of pulling out in front of Hamlin out of turn two.

“Once Denny jumped up, he just got such a huge boost from the 4,” Rowdy told the media. “Once he did it, I swore I thought about doing it. Once I thought about doing it and didn’t do it, it was too late. That was it. You can’t think that long and not make the move at the same time.

“So I missed my opportunity. But, you know, that’s racing. That’s how it goes.”

Not Surprising: Kevin Harvick started off 2016 where he seemed to be most weeks in 2015: in the top five.

Harvick didn’t end the day with a second Daytona 500 victory, instead having to settle for a fourth place finish after pushing Hamlin to the lead. It almost ended too early for the 2014 Cup champion, though; he saved himself from spinning off of turn four unlike a lot of other drivers in what became a danger zone for drivers.

“I wanted to be the first car in that outside line because I really thought they would really start pushing and shoving like they did and finally get some momentum coming toward the end of the race,” the driver of the no. 4 Jimmy Johns Chevrolet said. “Denny saw that momentum and was able to jump up in front of us. You look at our day, that first big slide we could have been on the wrecker pretty early in this race.”

Surprising: After dominating superspeedways all of last season, both Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske were DOA on Sunday.

Hendrick’s highest finishing driver ended up being Kasey Kahne, who ended the day 13th. Jimmie Johnson figured to be a factor in the final run to the checkers before a drive-through penalty after his last pit stop relegated the six time Cup champion 16th. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the heavy favorite to win, spun into the inner wall while fighting to get back to the lead in fourth. His day ended in 36th. Chase Elliott, in his first race as Jeff Gordon’s successor in the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet, started on the pole but spun into the infield early on and severely damaged his car. Elliott ended the day in 37th.

Meanwhile, Team Penske fared slightly better, with defending Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano finishing 6th and Brad Keselowski finishing 20th. Both, however, were never real threats against the Toyota domination.

Not Surprising: Kyle Larson ended a solid Speedweeks with a solid finish, a seventh place result after spending much of the day in the top 15. Larson had to feel a sense of relief, though; after not finishing his first two Daytona 500 starts, the third time was the charm for “Young Money.” But it wasn’t a stress-free day.

“The whole time, all the hairy moments we were in, it was just like ‘oh I have to get out of here so I can get to the checkered flag’,” Larson was quoted as saying following the race. “The last lap there it got really hectic. I was pushing the guy in front of me. I was getting pushed from behind. I was just trying to hold a steady wheel.”

Surprising: Every plate race usually has a surprise or two among the top 15. Drivers and teams that don’t often have the resources to regularly compete for a win often shine at Daytona and Talladega.

This race was no different, with Regan Smith of Tommy Baldwin Racing finishing eighth and Michael McDowell of Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing (CSLFR) finishing 15th.

Not Surprising: Although Richard Childress Racing didn’t make much noise on Sunday, the Chevrolet outfit continued to be consistent and reliable.

Austin Dillion and Ryan Newman finished ninth and eleventh, respectively, while Paul Menard brought his car home 18th. In addition to that, satellite teams TBR and CSLFR battled the odds and finished with the aforementioned great results.

The Sprint Cup Series rolls on next week to the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the QuikTrip Fields of Honor 500. The green flag waves at 1 p.m. ET Sunday as drivers race with the new low downforce Cup aero package.

 

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