Looking Back: Hamlin Rules Daytona Again

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Denny Hamlin poses in victory lane with his team after winning the Daytona 500. (Dave Moulthrop Photo)
Denny Hamlin poses in victory lane with his team after winning the Daytona 500. (Dave Moulthrop Photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin became the sixth driver to win three or more Daytona 500s, Ryan Newman survived a frightening crash and President Donald Trump became the second sitting U.S. president to attend the Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

It all played out over two days, Feb. 16-17, and was the culmination of two weeks of racing that left the historic 2.5-mile speedway looking more like a junkyard than the World Center of Racing. By our count more than 60 NASCAR Cup Series machines were involved in accidents during the Busch Clash, the Daytona Duels and the 62nd running of the Daytona 500.

Trump gave the command to start engines on Sunday afternoon but rain quickly moved into the area and, after polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the first 20 laps of the event, the conclusion of the event was pushed to 4 p.m. the following day.

Having sold out for the fifth straight year, much of the crowd returned the following day. And through two stages and more than half the scheduled distance, drivers kept their noses clean and the race built toward its dramatic climax, it had all of the makings of becoming a Daytona 500 the fans would long remember.

But on lap 184 of 200, the much anticipated “big one” happened with 19 cars involved in a massive wreck that began when Joey Logano bump-drafted Aric Almirola into Brad Keselowski, sending Keselowski into the wall in front of the field.

The race resumed on lap 191 only to have another multi-car crash on lap 198, sending the race into overtime. It was on the second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish that the grim and ugly specter of disaster paid an unwelcome visit, producing a Daytona 500 finish NASCAR and its fans will never forget.

Newman had his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford in the lead heading to the checkered flag off of turn four when he attempted to block a run from Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Newman then swung back to the bottom of the track with fellow Ford driver Ryan Blaney on his rear bumper.

But the pair made contact and Newman spun into the outside wall with his car becoming airborne when just shy of the finish line it was impacted by the oncoming car driven by Corey LaJoie.

Hamlin took the checkered flag for his second consecutive Daytona 500 triumph, while Newman’s destroyed race car ground to a halt upside down and in flames.

The AMR Safety Crew worked diligently to extract Newman from the wreckage, but when the black screens were brought out to shield the grandstands from the view of Newman’s car, many feared the worst.

Ryan Newman's car flies through the air after being hit by Corey LaJoie on the final lap of the Daytona 500. (Dave Moulthrop Photo)
Ryan Newman’s car flies through the air after being hit by Corey LaJoie on the final lap of the Daytona 500. (Dave Moulthrop Photo)

Newman was transported to nearby Halifax Health Medical Center while the world waited for news regarding the 42-year-old racer. Two hours after the race ended, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Officer Steve O’Donnell reported that Newman was in serious, but stable condition with non-life-threatening injuries.

The news got better quickly and on Wednesday afternoon — two days after the accident — Newman, who won the 2009 Daytona 500, walked out of the hospital.

The accident came one day short of the 19th anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001.

While Newman’s survival showcased how safe NASCAR racing has become since the implementation of the HANS device, SAFER barriers, the Car of Tomorrow and other safety measures, it also highlighted to large national television audience, the abhorrent danger of the pack racing that comes with NASCAR events at Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

Meanwhile, Hamlin quietly took his place among NASCAR’s legends — a three-time winner of The Great American Race.

“When I think about the names and of what a win would do here (Daytona), where does it put you and the names that it puts you with,” Hamlin said. “I consider those professors of racing like this and I’m just a guy that’s a student. It’s been great to be on the run that we’ve been on the last five years at this race track — well, more than five. It’s been eight years or so that we’ve been fantastic here.

“But I don’t know, I just can’t fathom, being that it’s harder to win today than ever because all the cars are so close together and with the attrition, the wrecks. It’s harder to win now than ever.”

Hamlin’s .014-second margin of victory over Blaney made it the second-closest finish in the history of the event. Hamlin also became the first driver since Sterling Marlin in 1994-’95 to win the Daytona 500 in back-to-back years.

Hamlin led 79 laps in what was the longest Daytona 500 on record, with overtime restarts extending the race to 209 laps.