NASCAR

Denny Hamlin goes from back-to-front to win 2016 Sprint Unlimited

Denny Hamlin has taken victory in the first race for NASCAR Sprint Cup series drivers in 2016. Hamlin took the win in the Sprint Unlimited at the Daytona International Speedway after a race full of exciting moves and a number of wrecks. Pre-race favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr, team-mate Jimmie Johnson and the last two Sprint Cup series champions Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were all caught up in wrecks during the course of the race. Even race-winner Hamlin sustained damage to his car in the early stages of the race.

Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski shared the front row as the green flag fell on the first race of 2016 for the Sprint Cup drivers. Keselowski got a demon start as he worked his way up the gears, with the outside lane’s momentum forcing Johnson down to 3rd as Larson jumped up to the rear of the #2 Penske Ford.

The outside line was certainly the one to be in during the first few laps, with Johnson falling almost out of the top 10 while cars breezed by. Thankfully for him, Jamie McMurray soon bought back the inside line as he tried to get by team-mate Larson; with the pair side-by-side for several laps.

The racing was wild in the first segment of the race as several drivers came close to wrecking. Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch had a near miss through the tri-oval as the pair ran out of room, but both managed to keep their cars in the right direction.

The wild racing was enough for Denny Hamlin to deploy the strategy of running safe at the back of the pack with Ricky Stenhouse Jr until the competition caution on lap 25 out of 75. The irony of the pair running safe at the back was that they would be the first pair to get damage, with Stenhouse losing control of his car thorough turn 2 before making contact with the side of the #11 car. This bought out the first caution of the night.

The caution came at a great time for Brad Keselowski who also hit strife while leading the pack. The #2 driver had a piece of debris blocking his radiator and the car was starting to overheat massively. He managed to pit to get the debris cleared, but he would then come back down pit-lane a few moments later when the rest of the field elected to stop under caution.

After the calamities for Keselowski, the two Chip Ganassi Chevrolets headed the field, with McMurray leading Larson to the green at the start of lap 18. The pair were still door-to-door by the end of the lap, but soon Johnson and Edwards began to snap at the heels of the two team-mates.

Behind the top three, it was three-wide, but it didn’t stay that way for long after a hard wreck for Brian Vickers and several other cars. Like Stenhouse before, Vickers seemed to cut a tyre. He swerved down and tore out a piece of the right-side of Earnhardt’s #88 before slamming into the wall and collecting Harvick, Biffle and Bowyer. Nearly all 4 corners of Vickers’ #14 car were torn up, but Brian was thankfully uninjured.

The field rolled down pit-road during the caution yet again, with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski inheriting the lead having stopped multiple times a few laps beforehand on account of earlier light damage. A number of drivers came in a second time during the caution to top off their fuel, meaning that a few drivers in the field could now go to the end on fuel.

Joe Gibbs cars were 1-2 by the end of the first lap after the restart, with Hamlin leading team-mate Edwards and the #2 car of Keselowski. Soon it was battle of the team-mates, with Hamiln and Edwards up against Keselowski and Logano. Hamlin and Edwards were separated a few moments later by a surging middle-lane led by former race-leader McMurray. This gave Keselowski some breathing room out front, albeit with some more debris now covering part of the redesigned Ford Fusion front grille.

A 3rd caution would wave on lap 44 after Jimmie Johnson lost control while going three-wide in the mid-pack. Air disturbance as cars jostled around him was likely the cause, but his race was done after the slide through the grass tore off the front splitter of his #48 Chevrolet.

The race seemed to be a repeat of last year’s caution-fest, with the caution coming out for a 4th time not long after the race restart. This time, it was the fault of Jamie McMurray as he span out Kasey Kahne while trying to bump draft. Kahne last control and swerved up the track into the side of AJ Allmendinger.

The laps were soon winding down and strategy was starting to come to the fore. Race leader Denny Hamlin was being instructed to fuel save heavily, with other drivers in the pack in much more comfortable positions with their mileage.

The race restarted at the start of lap 62 of 75. Hamlin and Keselowski once again resumed their battle at the front of the pack, with the field three-wide and shaky behind them. Hamlin was soon reunited with team-mate Edwards who began to help push him, but Keselowski and Logano were also forming up to challenge them with under 10 to go. The caution would come out briefly after an engine-issue for Kasey Kahne. This set-up an interesting final few laps to decide the winner of the Sprint Unlimited.

The green flag came out with 6 to go, with Hamlin still in the lead ahead of team-mate Edwards, but Carl soon lost out while trying to move to the inside. His momentum slowed and he lost out to Logano and Kenseth. It got worse for Carl a few laps later when he didn’t leave enough room for Keselowski on his outside out of turn 2. The spinning Edwards caught up a number of cars, with Casey Mears, Kyle Busch and numerous others behind.

The first race of 2016 would showcase the new overtime rules for the first time, with the race going over the elapsed distance thanks to the late caution. Hamlin and Logano took the green flag on the front row, with Larson, Kenseth, Menard and Truex Jr now making up the top 6.

Hamlin and Logano stayed side-by-side as they took the white flag, with Kyle Larson right on the back of the pair. The race wouldn’t go to the line however, with a wreck further back bringing out the caution as the drivers made their way out of turn 2. Truex came round in front of a number of cars including McMurray and Keselowski, with Patrick and Biffle also piling in.

Hamlin was just ahead of Logano at the time of the caution call, which would mean that he would take his Fex-Ex #11 Toyota to victory lane; the 4th time in 5 years that a Joe Gibbs car has won the Sprint Unlimited. It was a great strategic win by the #11 team after being at the back of the field early on after taking damage at the first caution.

Joey Logano would take 2nd place ahead of Paul Menard, with the #27 Chevrolet driver unable to find a way past Hamlin at the final restart. Kyle Larson and Casey Mears would take 4th and 5th, with Ricky Stenhouse benefitting from the final wreck to take 6th. Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon took 7th and 8th, with Brad Keselowski 9th despite being in the midst of the race-ending crash. Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10 in the #16 KFC Ford.

The next on-track action for the Sprint Cup series drivers will be tomorrow with the start of Daytona 500 qualifying. The 44 entrants will battle it out for the front-row positions, with 38 cars having to continue their qualifying onto Thursday’s Can-Am duels and 4 unchartered cars having to pack up and go home.

Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com – http://static.nascar.com/content/dam/nascar/articles/2016/2/13/hero/hamlin-hero.jpg/jcr:content/renditions/original

2016 Sprint Unlimited results:

POS

Driver

Car

Starting POS

Laps

Laps Led

Gap

1

#11 Denny Hamlin

Toyota

15

79

39

Leader

2

#22 Joey Logano

Ford

25

79

0

0.923

3

#27 Paul Menard

Chevrolet

14

79

0

1.008

4

#42 Kyle Larson

Chevrolet

4

79

0

2.568

5

#13 Casey Mears

Chevrolet

6

79

0

3.732

6

#17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Ford

11

79

0

3.896

7

#41 Kurt Busch

Chevrolet

21

79

0

4.512

8

#3 Austin Dillon

Chevrolet

10

79

0

6.023

9

#2 Brad Keselowski

Ford

2

79

26

17.985

10

#16 Greg Biffle

Ford

16

79

0

26.858

11

#10 Danica Patrick

Chevrolet

12

79

0

29.093

12

#20 Matt Kenseth

Toyota

13

78

0

1 lap

13

#78 Martin Truex Jr.

Toyota

7

78

0

1 lap

14

#1 Jamie McMurray

Chevrolet

24

78

14

1 lap

15

#88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Chevrolet

23

75

0

4 laps

16

#19 Carl Edwards

Toyota

19

72

0

7 laps

17

#18 Kyle Busch

Toyota

9

72

0

7 laps

18

#43 Aric Almirola

Ford

17

72

0

5 laps

19

#31 Ryan Newman

Chevrolet

5

69

0

10 laps

20

#5 Kasey Kahne

Chevrolet

20

64

0

15 laps

21

#47 AJ Allmendinger

Chevrolet

3

56

0

23 laps

22

#48 Jimmie Johnson

Chevrolet

1

43

0

36 laps

23

#15 Clint Bowyer

Chevrolet

8

23

0

56 laps

24

#14 Brian Vickers

Chevrolet

18

22

0

57 laps

25

#4 Kevin Harvick

Chevrolet

22

22

0

57 laps

Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com – http://static.nascar.com/content/dam/nascar/articles/2015/2/10/main/NASCAR-Lifestyle-main.jpg/jcr:content/renditions/original

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