DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After sweeping both races in Thursday night’s Budweiser Duel at Daytona 150-mile qualifying races Joe Gibbs Racing has placed themselves as the team to beat in Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth won a thrilling three-wide fight to the checkered flag to win Race No. 1 and Denny Hamlin went two-for-two at Daytona this year as last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited race winner defeated three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon to the checkered flag in a race that ended with a massive fiery crash behind them.
By winning both of Thursday night’s qualifying races – the first time these contests have been held at night at Daytona International Speedway – it will be an all JGR second row with Kenseth starting third and Hamlin fourth in Toyota Camrys behind the all-Chevy front row of rookie Austin Dillon the pole and Martin Truex, Jr. on the outside.
Kenseth and Hamlin along with fellow JGR driver Kyle Busch will attempt to give team owner Joe Gibbs his first Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett in 1993.
“We’ve come with great cars over the years,” said Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. “It shows you what a tough race this is, the Daytona 500. Like I said, we won once and it’s 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. That says it the best, over 22 years, that’s a bunch.
“I know this: you win one of these, these Daytona 500s, it’s one of the greatest experiences,” said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. “That day we got lost, we didn’t know what to do, where Victory Lane was. (Later that night) We wound up at the Steak and Shake. There were about 15 people in there hammered, we showed up with the trophy, out in the parking lot taking pictures with our family.”
Hamlin was first to the checkered flag in a race that finished with a massive crash behind him that saw six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson catch on fire and Clint Bowyer’s car flip completely over before landing on all four wheels. Also, two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip’s Toyota ran into the opening of the pit wall.
“I think Jimmie ran out of gas,” Bowyer said after his wild ride. “I knew he was saving gas coming to the green. It’s too bad to tear cars up like that. That was one of the wildest flips I’ve ever had. I think we would have been just fine if I hadn’t hit the grass right here.
The crash was triggered when Johnson’s car slowed and Jamie McMurray’s car ran into the pack of his Chevrolet sending it crashing into the wall.
Johnson was running out of fuel and that is why he slowed and ultimately caused the incident.
“I did, and I feel terrible,” Johnson said. “To tear up that many race cars; to see the No. 15 flip. I feel terrible, and certainly want to apologize to everyone. I tried to get up out of the way; I had my hand out of the side. But last lap coming to the checkered, there is so much going on right there. So much energy in the pack that I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out because guys warned me about it – and it did. Thankfully everyone is alright, and I certainly feel bad for the torn up race cars.
“I’m fine. I feel terrible all these cars that were caught up in that crash. I ran out of gas, man at the most inopportune time right in front of everybody. I feel terrible. Thankfully it looks like everybody is okay, but a lot of great race cars were torn up. Clint (Bowyer) flipped over. I just feel real bad about it. Certainly glad everybody was alright.”
Hamlin finished the race as the winner just ahead of three-time Daytona 500 winner Gordon’s Chevrolet. Kurt Busch was third in a Chevrolet followed by Paul Menard’s Chevrolet and Brian Scott’s Chevrolet in a race that officially ends under caution.
And by winning his second Daytona race in as many attempts this week, he has strongly solidified his position in the Daytona 500.
“We just keep doing what we’re doing,” Hamlin said. “We’re on a roll, obviously. We executed the race today great. We didn’t execute the first part of the race that well, trying to make moves, trying not to run single file. I kind of wanted to spice things up a little bit. It ended up taking me to the rear for the most part. But fought our way back.
“Really the goal was just to get ourselves in the position, somewhere in the top 10, within a second of those guys when they pitted so I could rely on my pit crew to try to do the rest.
“We performed a great pit stop, really got out there with a lead. I was a little worried about how big of a lead we had off of pit road, but everything kind of worked out good. The 2 kind of gave me a shove as he’s coming in for a pit road penalty. That kept my momentum up to stay ahead of the pack.
“After that, just kind of watched and learned what happened in the first Duel with the 20. He decided to keep the high line going even on the white flag lap. I felt like going ahead and protecting bottom early with a lap to go was better for us. Either way, we still came out on top. So it’s a good executed race.”