There were only 18 cars that started Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited and after the 75 laps only eight finished it on the track and five of those without damage. It was a full moon night at Daytona International Speedway but it was Denny Hamlin that survived the carnage and won all three segments of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series exhibition race started by last seasons pole winners and past winners of the event.
Hamlin made an impressive charge late in segment three and made his move with a lap and a half left to give him his second career win in the event and the first since his rookie year in 2006.
"Best car won, that's for sure," Hamlin said. "This car was phenomenal. I mean you saw it those last couple laps."
The NASCAR fans voted for the format of a 30 lap first segment, 25 lap second segment, and 20 lap third segment. They also decided the drivers would start the race based on Friday's final practice speeds which put Denny Hamlin on the pole and Jamie McMurray alongside him.
With no points on the line in the race drivers took a lot of chances and many times that end in a crash as they got the first taste of what the new rules package has in store for them coming up in next week's Budweiser Duels and Daytona 500.
Hamlin led the opening lap before McMurray took the lead on lap 2 and began to lead a single file line around the top of the 2.5 mile track. Kyle Busch was able to make a move on him eventually to take control and he led until lap 17 when Kevin Harvick took the lead. On lap 22 McMurray pitted for overheating issues due to picking up trash on his grille while he was leading. Hamlin took the lead on lap 23 and he was leading coming to the completion on lap 29 when Jimmie Johnson spun off Turn 4.
The 6-time champion was running second and tried to set up a move on Hamlin's car when he got loose and lost control. He slammed driver's side into the inside wall at pit road entrance but was okay.
Lap 30 was run under yellow and Hamlin was the winner of segment one. Pit stops occurred before the start of the 25 lap second segment and Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon were the first two off pit road after taking fuel only and they would start up front. Keselowski led until Denny Hamlin passed him on lap 5.
As Hamlin made that move his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate was trying to follow him by moving from the top to the bottom of the track but he was not clear of Joey Logano's car. Kenseth spun and collected Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. From there Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr also piled in. Danica Patrick spun trying to avoid but had not sustained any damage until her boyfriend Stenhouse plowed into her car when he could not see out of the windshield because his hood was blocking his view after his heavy contact into Kurt Busch. The wreck ended the night for all of them. Kevin Harvick also sustained some damage in the fray but his crew kept him on the lead lap while making repairs. Stewart, who was competing in his first race since breaking his leg last August, was not injured in the wreck and climbed out of his battered car under his own power.
On lap 8 all the cars were allowed to park in their pit stall under a red flag to clean the track and in the exhibition race were allowed to work on their cars. After a short delay the track was cleaned of all the debris and the race went back green in segment two on lap 11 with only nine cars running.
Keselowski led until lap 14 when his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano took the lead. Denny Hamlin again surged to the front on lap 17 and from there led the way to the completion of lap 25 to win segment two over Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Ryan Newman, and Kevin Harvick. Harvick had almost lost an entire lap as he lost the draft in his damaged car.
The fans voted for a mandatory pit stop where teams had to take at least two tires to set the starting lineup for the 20 lap third and final segment. More carnage hit when the pace car actually caught on fire which is a situation that surely could only happen on a full moon night of racing. The lineup off pit road for the final segment was Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick.
McMurray would lead lap 1 and then Dale Earnhardt Jr surged to the lead on lap 2. The caution would come out on lap 5 when Kyle Busch tried to make a move in Turn 3 and cut to the bottom of the track. He was not clear of Brad Keselowski and got turned sideways. Amazingly, like in 2012, Busch straightened the car out but did sustain front end damage when he hit the grass. His team worked hard though to make repairs so he would have a chance to come back and win the Sprint Unlimited just like in 2012. Harvick's crew also made more repairs to his car and finally looked as if they got him back up to speed.
The race restarted on lap 9 and Joey Logano took the lead. He was leading when on lap 11 the caution would come out again when Dale Earnhardt Jr was was turned into the outside wall going to Turn 1 by Marcos Ambrose. Brad Keselowski had moved to the top line to block Earnhardt's run and when he did Dale Jr moved down half a lane and then back up but Ambrose had his nose there which turned both into the wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr was done for the night while Ambrose's team made extensive repairs to keep his car competitive.
The race restarted on lap 16 with five to go with only eight cars on the track and three of those (Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Marcos Ambrose) having damage repairs. Logano led lap 16 but it was Keselowski who took the lead on lap 17. He led still on lap 19 when Kyle Busch came off Turn 2 and got below him. The two side drafted each other and slowed allowing Denny Hamlin to get a huge run. He took to the yellow line down the backstretch and grabbed the lead with a three-wide pass.
He sailed ahead and built a five car length lead off Turn 2 on the final lap. As they battled behind him for position Hamlin kept his lead and amazingly no one could get a run on him as they came to the line to end lap 20 and the final segment. Denny Hamlin drove a great night of racing and now has found victory lane in the last two Sprint Cup events after winning the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Brad Keselowski finished second, Kyle Busch, third, Joey Logano fourth, Kevin Harvick fifth, Jamie McMurray sixth, Marcos Ambrose seventh, and Ryan Newman eighth on a wild start to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Tomorrow's action will be much subdued as compared with only single car runs on the track as 49 cars will take time to decide the front row for the Daytona 500. That qualifying can be seen Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX.
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