DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin earned his first Daytona 500 victory in the closest finish in the race's storied 58-year history, pushing his No. 11 FedEx Toyota ahead of Martin Truex Jr.'s Toyota at the finish line by one-hundredth of a second (0.010) -- a half-foot winning difference in NASCAR's most celebrated event.
Hamlin, 34, called it the "biggest race of my life," and was still shaking his head taking it all in as he spoke to reporters amid the falling confetti and loud celebration in Daytona International Speedway's Victory Lane.
The two cars crossed the finish line simultaneously, and it wasn't until NASCAR made the official call and television replayed the finish before most people -- in the pits and the grandstands -- were certain who had won.
"I had no anticipations of winning this race on the white flag lap," Hamlin said. "I didn't know we had won. I knew it was close. I saw the pylon change and blink at the last second with the 11. I heard people on the radio crazy and excited and assumed we won at that point.
"If not, I was going to be PISSED," he added smiling.
Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards finished third and fifth, respectively. Former Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick was fourth. Last year's 500 winner Joey Logano was sixth, followed by Kyle Larson in seventh, his best showing in the race to date.
"This was a team victory," Hamlin said. "My teammates did an amazing job all day; this is a proud moment for everyone at Toyota. I don't know what happened, I can't even figure out what I did."
Truex was understandably of mixed emotions following the race, but mostly proud of his day and of establishing his team's good working relationship with Gibbs' stable of Toyotas.
He was running second behind fellow Camry driver Matt Kenseth for the final 20 laps but when Hamlin pulled out to make a run for the win on the final lap, Kenseth went up to block the progress. Hamlin got by, and Truex and Busch jumped in line behind as Kenseth got shuffled back and ultimately finished 14th.
"It hurts a little bit, but it's something to be proud of for sure," Truex said managing a smile and insisting he didn't know if he had won or not at the checkered flag. He said he was actually looking at the large video screen as he went around the track for a replay.
"I knew it was really close," he said. "I didn't think either way, just said, 'Man that was really close.' I have a feeling I'll be seeing a picture of that (finish) for a long time.
"I'm fine though, I'm proud of what we did."
"This is just one race, but seeing and feeling that teamwork with JGR," Truex said of his career-best finish at Daytona. "We had a plan before the race and really controlled the entire race. It was great to show them they can trust me to be a part of their team. It was important to kick that relationship off right."
Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 champion and a winner in Thursday's qualifying race, led twice for 15 laps, but crashed alone on Lap 170 racing mid-pack.
"I got loose and just busted my tail," Earnhardt said. "It was time to go. We were making some moves on the outside and moving forward and passing some guys. Just got loose trying to do too much at once."
Earnhardt acknowledged he felt like the car was not where it needed to be, but was also hopeful of getting back to the front to race for the win.
"Well it's fast when it don't have to handle good" Earnhardt said. "But today it needed to handle and we weren't handling."
Elliott's first Daytona 500 took a downturn only a few laps into the afternoon. The youngest pole winner (age 20) in history led the opening three circuits but crashed into the infield on Lap 20.
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"Just got in the middle there a couple of laps before and got loose off of (turn) four and just lost it," said Elliott, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate and driver of the famed No. 24 previously driven by newly-retired champion Jeff Gordon.
"I hate it, it had been such a fun week and you hate to end the race before it even got started. Just disappointed for everybody. We will just have to look past it and get on for Atlanta.
"That is the most important thing now. Can't get caught up in what happened today, it is irrelevant now. We'll try and get it fixed and make some laps. Then it's on to Atlanta and if we can make some laps we will and move forward from here."
Other former winners were occasionally, if not steadily, in the winning mix Sunday only to have various foibles.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson led 18 laps and ran among the front pack midway through the day, but got shuffled back and finished 16th, his worst finish in four seasons.
Brian Vickers, who steered Tony Stewart's No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet while the three-time NASCAR champion stayed home in Charlotte, North Carolina, healing from a back injury, ran up front among the top-10 for a portion of the day and was as high as second place in the final 40 laps.
This day certainly seemed to belong to Toyotas and Hamlin, who is still recovering from ACL surgery two months ago. Hamlin is only the sixth driver to win both the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500 in the same season, joining greats such as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett, the last to do it in 2000.
"Here they were three-time champions and they took a chance on us. I hate it that it's taken this long (for a championship and Daytona 500 win) but the bond we have with Joe Gibbs and his family is stronger than ever," said President and General Manager of Toyota Racing Development USA David Wilson.
For Hamlin, it was particularly special with new crew chief Michael Wheeler calling his first race for Hamlin, the first time they've worked together since Wheeler spent six races atop the box in 2014.
"For them to be together just this short period of time and accomplish what they have is such an amazing story," said team owner Joe Gibbs, who also conceded he didn't know who had won the race at first, either.
A good hour after the checkered flag, Hamlin came to his winner's news conference still pumped up and smiling, raising his arms in triumph.
"This is the best," Hamlin said. "I mean, it's just the best. It's the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 is the pinnacle of our sport and I'm just proud to be here."