DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The end of the Daytona 500, signals the beginning of another long and tumultuous Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. The contrasts are striking as the winner celebrates in victory lane, basking in the glory of his accomplishments with the lights of Daytona Int’l Speedway illuminating the moment.
Off in the darkness is a long stream of lights and red reflectors from the transporters of the non-winning Daytona 500 teams as they head home to prepare for the rest of the season.
On Feb. 17, Denny Hamlin won his second Daytona 500. It was an emotional victory because it was the first Cup Series race since the death of Joe Gibbs Racing team president J.D. Gibbs on Jan. 11. Gibbs’ father, team owner Joe Gibbs, was emotional after he became the second NASCAR team owner to have his cars finish 1-2-3 in The Great American Race.
Hamlin’s Toyota beat teammates Kyle Busch and Erik Jones to the line.
“J.D.’s favorite number was 11 when he raced,” Joe Gibbs recalled. “That’s what he had. Denny’s number is 11. Denny put J.D. over the door post on that car and to have that take place, everything that took place tonight, everybody knows, we’ve been to Daytona 27 times. We had won twice before. You’re thinking about things and I guess everybody could say, well, that just happened. I don’t believe that just happened. I honestly think the Lord looked down on us, and I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional. I called home to Pat, (Gibbs’ wife and J.D.’s mother) and I called sponsors that were emotional, too.
“It was just an unbelievable night, unbelievable crowd. The whole thing was just a special memory for me and it’s one I’ll never forget. It was the most important night of my occupational life.”
In addition to Hamlin winning the 61st running of the event, there were other key takeaways from the Daytona 500.
• As the season’s first winning driver, Hamlin earned a position in the NASCAR playoffs. The Daytona 500 victory came after Hamlin was winless last season.
“It’s not like we weren’t competitive; we just didn’t win the race,” Hamlin said. “We were leading on the final restart at the Brickyard 400 and the Daytona 500 last year and circumstances took us out of those races. You win both of those in the same year and they think you’re amazing.
“We just didn’t win the races and I understand that that’s very important, but we’ve been competitive my entire career and I don’t see that changing,” Hamlin added. “I know that Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) has got a great plan ahead of us, starting next week in Atlanta.”
• Toyota may be outnumbered by Chevrolet and Ford in Cup Series racing this season with only JGR and Leavine Family Racing, but there is tremendous quality in those five cars. The Daytona 500 was JGR’s 100th victory with Toyota.
“It’s really great for us,” Gibbs said. “The relationship we have with Toyota, the partnership, the friends that have developed over our period of time with them, it’s a special deal for us, special for them, and to realize, like I said, you’ve got a company like that that could be doing a million different things around the world, and for them to choose to be in our sport is just a huge deal, I think, for us, the sport. They’re great partners for us and the big thing is they want to win.”