Denny Hamlin wins the Sprint Unlimited, an exhibition race and prelude to the Daytona 500

Denny Hamlin was celebrating Saturday night when car owner Joe Gibbs reminded him in victory lane that his Sprint Unlimited triumph came in the preliminary, not the main event.

After all, Gibbs won three Super Bowls as a coach. But it has been 23 years since he has been in the Daytona 500 winner's circle, when Dale Jarrett prevailed in 1993.

"Has Joe mentioned he wants to win the 500 yet?" said Hamlin, who joined Gibbs late for the postrace news conference.

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Hamlin won the crash-filled 75-lap exhibition at Daytona International Speedway, a prelude to the 500 next Sunday.

Joey Logano finished second, Paul Menard third and Kyle Larson fourth as only 15 of the 25 cars were running at the end.

Trying to stretch his fuel mileage, Hamlin needed to buy some time, and the six cautions (for 24 laps) gave him an edge. He survived a minor accident with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and avoided several others.

An accident involving Brad Keselowski, Casey Mears and Carl Edwards on the backstretch caused the race to go four extra laps and test NASCAR's revamped "overtime" procedure.

To determine a winner under green-flag racing, any attempts in OT would be governed by an "overtime line" on the backstretch.

If drivers passed the line in the middle of the backstretch on the first lap of a green-white-checkered re-start, the race would end immediately if a caution comes out. But the overtime line was no factor because the Mears-Keselowski-Edwards crash occurred on the second lap of the white-flag lap.

"The rule really didn't come into play," Logano said.

But trash blowing all over the track did, with Logano calling it a "landfill."

A yellow light gave Keselowski a chance to attend to his smoke-billowing Ford. The car began overheating after its grill picked up a plastic bag on the track, meaning Keselowski's run was affected by littering.

The second caution came when Brian Vickers, who is replacing the injured Tony Stewart, spun on a bad tire and smacked the wall, collecting six other cars, including Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. All were eliminated from the race.

Vickers was evaluated and released from the infield care center.

Earnhardt, who started 23rd, was thought of as a prerace favorite.

He had recorded the fastest lap in practice Saturday at 194.116 mph in another car.

Hamlin recovered from his minor collision with Stenhouse to seize the lead briefly as the field took a mandatory pit stop after 25 laps.

Pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson lost control of his car while in a tight pack next to Mears, his Chevy sent spinning into the infield grass, ending his outing.

The 25-car field was determined by various criteria — from previous Sprint Unlimited champions to 2015 pole sitters — and no points were at stake. Johnson won the pole for the event based on a garage-area draw.

Drivers regard the event as a dress rehearsal for next Sunday's 500.

They didn't use their 500 cars, but their backups or similar racing machines, offering them a chance to shake off the off-season rust.

The Gibbs crew won the Sprint Unlimited for the fourth time in five years, with Hamlin capturing three of them. But it's not the Granddaddy of stock-car racing.

"The 500 is just hard to win," Gibbs said. "So many things can happen. You can have real good cars, but it's a tough race to win. I'd love to get another one."

Said Hamlin: "The way I drove speedway races [in the past], I probably never gave us a shot. You keep knocking on the door, it's going to happen. We want to get Joe one of those Daytona 500 trophies as soon as possible."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 14, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Hamlin prevails in warmup race - Driver wins the Sprint Unlimited, an exhibition competition and prelude to the Daytona 500." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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