Sports

Denny Hamlin nips Martin Truex Jr. to win Daytona 500

Blink. That's the best way to visualize the winning margin for Denny Hamlin in the Daytona 500 on Sunday afternoon.

Hamlin had just made a last-lap run on teammate Matt Kenseth, who got knocked back given the aerodynamic quirkiness of restrictor-plate racing. There remained only one man, one car left to beat: Martin Truex Jr.

Blink. Hamlin got him by 0.010 seconds, the closest margin in Daytona 500 history.

"Woo! How about that [bleep]," Hamlin said at the Daytona International Speedway media center, knocking down a microphone for ecstatic emphasis. "It's the pinnacle of my career."

The euphoric rush was contagious. Owner Joe Gibbs won the 500 for the first time since 1993, when Dale Jarrett was the driver]. And it was a fabulous day for Toyota, which had four of the top five spots.

Hamlin had no plans to whoop it up in Victory Lane. He was riding the outside lane, happy to be a wing man for Kenseth. That had been the plan. Meetings. Text messages. The Toyota boys working together. The plan was working splendidly. Kenseth, Truex, Kyle Busch, Hamlin. All riding up front.

Kevin Harvick, a Chevrolet driver, was the only wild card in the mix. And he started to make a run, bumping Hamlin's bumper.

"I can assure you and promise to God to you that my plan was to block the four car [Harvick] from getting to the front three," Hamlin said.

But Harvick kept bumping. Pop. Pop. Hamlin's car kept lunging forward. Now, Hamlin was getting a huge run on the outside.

Then a split-second thought bubble: Go for it.

Hamlin made his move, getting a run on the outside lane, squeezing by Kenseth and sending him slinging back down the track. Hamlin then got by Truex by about six inches.

"I just went with it and we ended up with a victory," Hamlin said.

It was Hamlin's 11th Daytona 500 race. He drives the No. 11 Fed-Ex Toyota. It was the 47th birthday of J.D. Gibbs, son of the team owner, who has been battling a condition that affects his brain function.

"You couldn't have written a better ending to our week," Hamlin said.

Conversely, it was a heartbreak for Truex.

"It hurts a little but there's a lot to be proud of. ... I felt we did everything right to put us in position to win," said Truex, an unlikely outlier in the Chase for the Championship last season, competing for Furniture Row Racing.

This was one of those little-boy, big-boy dreams for Hamlin, 35. In the second grade, he wrote that his wish was to win the Daytona 500 by 1998.

"I missed it by a little bit on the date, a few small details," he said.

It was Hamlin's 27th victory in 363 NASCAR Cup starts.

"Ultimately you're defined by the big moments," Hamlin said. "The championship is next for us."

In a typical day of Daytona carnage, big names and prominent teams got squeezed out of the picture. Pole-sitter Chase Elliott went spinning into the infield on Lap 20 and finished 37th. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., got loose and did an infield spin as well on Lap 170.

Earnhardt went home bummed out. Gibbs and his gang headed to a fast-food place, recreating the moment 23 years ago when they celebrated Jarrett's victory with burgers, fries and fans who were shocked by the company they kept that night.

gdiaz@tribune.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 22, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Hamlin takes a nose drive to win - He overtakes Truex at the finish line for the closest margin of victory in the history of the Daytona 500." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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