It’s been more than 20 years since Joe Gibbs Racing has won the Daytona 500. But there’s little question the team is the prohibitive favorite to win NASCAR’s biggest race on Sunday.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin swept the Budweiser Duels on Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway, giving Gibbs all three wins at Speedweeks. Hamlin also won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition last weekend.
Hamlin was headed for the checkered flag on the final lap of Thursday’s second Duel when a spectacular crash coming off turn four ended the race.
The seven-car crash was touched off when six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel and had nowhere to go. He was hit by Jamie McMurray, setting off a chain reaction that sent Clint Bowyer airborne and into a barrel roll down the track and across the infield grass.
“That was one of the wildest flips I’ve ever had,” said Bowyer, who still finished 10th. “I think I would have been fine if I hadn’t hit the grass.”
By then, Hamlin, had the win that put him in position to become the first driver to sweep Speedweeks, assuming he can become the first Gibbs driver to win the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett in 1993.
“Once a snowball starts rolling, it’s hard to stop it, and right now we’re on a heck of a run,” said Hamlin, who endured a miserable 2013 season in which he missed four races because of a back injury and failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
However, Hamlin did win the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami, and team owner Joe Gibbs said that win gave the No. 11 Toyota team the lift it needed.
“Last year was so, so hard on us,” Gibbs said. “Homestead was huge for us. We were all hungry when the year started.”
“Starving …” interjected Hamlin.
Gibbs, who has fielded three Sprint Cup champions since Jarrett won the organization’s first race in the 1933 Daytona 500, can’t explain the dry spell.
“We’ve come with great cars over the years,” Gibbs said. “It shows you what a tough race this is, the 500. We won once … probably one of the greatest sporting experiences I've ever had. I was thrilled. This race is extremely, extremely hard to win, the 500. That probably says it the best … over 22 years, that’s a bunch.”
Hamlin, who won the race under caution, was followed by Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. McMurray, of Joplin, was 11th and Carl Edwards of Columbia was 15th.
In the first duel, Kenseth edged Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne in a three-wide finish, but then Harvick’s Chevrolet did not pass post-race inspection when it was discovered it exceeded the maximum split on the track bar. Harvick’s qualifying effort was disallowed, and his finish was scored as 24th. He’ll start 38th in Sunday’s race.
Kenseth is a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 for Roush Fenway Racing, including 2012, when he won both the Budweiser Duel and The Great American Race on Sunday.
But now Hamlin, who will start in the second row alongside Kenseth and behind pole sitter Austin Dillon and Martin Truex Jr., has a chance to become the first driver to sweep all three Speedway events.
“The biggest challenge we'll have for myself is keeping the reins back only for 400 miles, 450 miles,” Hamlin said. “It's going to be a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it's hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you're still on top and still the best right on lap one.
“It’s going to be battling those inner demons of wanting to go out there, lead laps, putting yourself in a safe position, but also being conservative and making sure you're there at the end of the day.”