Denny Hamlin wins 2014 Sprint Unlimited
February 15, 2014, Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com
MORE: Sprint Unlimited results
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin survived a war of attrition to win Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway.
The winner of all three segments of the 75-lap event, Hamlin was running up front and out of harm's way when a wreck halved the field early in the second segment.
And on a night when the pace car caught fire and had to be abandoned between the second and final segments, Hamlin won the race with a three-wide move on the backstretch on the next-to-last lap at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
The event was decided in a five-lap dash after a Lap 66 collision with Marcos Ambrose in Turn 1 eliminated the No. 88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had surrendered the lead to Joey Logano two laps earlier.
Brad Keselowski ran second, followed by Kyle Busch, Logano and Kevin Harvick, whose No. 4 Chevrolet was damaged in the nine-car wreck that punctuated segment No. 2.
"The best car won -- that's for sure," said Hamlin, who won the last race of the 2013 season, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "Two in a row now. We're building on something. That was survival of the fittest, that's for sure.
"With three (laps) to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack, and it's really hard to get runs. But this car was phenomenal."
With 15 laps left, Kyle Busch spun in Turn 4 off the nose of Keselowski's Ford, as Busch tried to move down the track. The resulting yellow gave Ryan Newman and Hamlin a chance to make pit stops. Fresh tires certainly helped the race winner.
After fan voting closed at 6 p.m., drivers learned the structure of the race -- segments of 30, 25 and 20 laps in that order. When the engines were fired, roughly 55 minutes after the close of another fan vote, the method of ordering the field was revealed, and the starting lineup was set according to speeds in Friday's final practice.
That put Hamlin on the pole, with Jamie McMurray beside him. Matt Kenseth, Newman and Jimmie Johnson, who sat out the final practice session, started 16th through 18th, respectively in the 18-car field.
Typical of restrictor-plate racing, however, starting position had little relevance. Hamlin went from the pole to last place and back to the lead again in the first 35-lap segment. Johnson advanced from the tail end of the field to the top five within the space of 20 laps.
In danger of losing the draft on Lap 6, Danica Patrick rallied to run as high as third in the first segment, using the inside line to advance to the front, as Hamlin and Johnson did likewise.
But Johnson's night ended early, after he spun off Turn 4 on Lap 30, bringing the first 30-lap run to an end under caution. Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was too badly damaged to continue, marking the third straight year the six-time champion has crashed out of the season-opening exhibition race.
"Well, that didn't last long," Johnson posted on his Twitter account.
Johnson's wreck paled in comparison with the nine-car melee that followed on Lap 37 of the second segment. Kenseth turned sideways near the start/finish line after contact with the No. 22 Ford of Logano. The resulting wreck collected most of the cars behind Kenseth.
Tony Stewart, racing for the first time since breaking his right leg in a sprint car accident on Aug. 5, was pinned against the outside wall in a three-car tangle that included the Chevrolets of Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s Ford slammed into the Chevy of girlfriend Danica Patrick, who had spun in the tri-oval.
Kenseth apologized for triggering the wreck, which started when Kenseth tried to move from the outside to the inside lane and hit Logano's Ford.
"I was just kind of easing my way down there, and I had no idea Joey was that close to me," Kenseth said. "…Not the way you want to start the season."
Stewart seemed no worse for the wear after climbing from his car.
"There's no pain right now," he said. "But we'll see what happens in about an hour when the adrenaline wears off."
Stenhouse was out of control after running into the back of Busch's Chevrolet in the pileup that damaged all four Stewart-Haas Racing entries.
"I didn't see anything from the time it started to the time it ended," Stenhouse said. "Talking to Danica when I got in there (infield care center) that I drilled her when she was pretty much sitting still. I couldn't see, couldn't turn and just really destroyed our Nationwide Insurance Ford."
The accident left nine cars to take the green flag on Lap 41, including two -- Logano's Ford and Harvick's Chevy -- that were involved in the crash. Harvick quickly dropped back and lost the draft because of crash damage but stayed on the lead lap through the end of the segment.
Hamlin grabbed the lead on Lap 47 and held it for the final nine laps of the segment No. 2, crossing the start/finish line .131 seconds ahead of Keselowski.
The final fan vote of the night, announced before the last 20-lap run, determined the restart lineup for the final segment would be set by running order off pit road after a mandatory pit stop, with crews changing at least two tires.
Hamlin won the race off pit road, lost the lead to Earnhardt but worked his way back to the front a lap and a half before the finish.