Running up front paid off long before the checkered flag Saturday night for Denny Hamlin. Leading the field for the last 16 laps kept him clear of two late-race cautions and enabled him to win the Sprint Unlimited for the third time at Daytona International Speedway.
It marked the third consecutive Sprint Unlimited victory and fourth in the last five years for Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry) took the checkered and caution flags simultaneously, after a multi-car mishap during an “overtime” finish that extended the race four laps beyond its scheduled distance of 75 laps.
There were seven cautions on the night. The one that necessitated the overtime was caused by a Lap 73 backstretch incident that involved six cars including the No. 18 M&M’s 75 Toyota Camry of reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch.
Reigning DAYTONA 500 champion Joey Logano (No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford) finished second, after starting last in the 25-car field. Paul Menard (No. 27 Peak Antifreeze/Menard Chevrolet) finished third.
“This is a great team win,’ Hamlin said. “We’re looking forward to [the DAYTONA 500].”
Former Sprint Unlimited champions and former DAYTONA. 500 pole winners who competed full time in 2015 were eligible for this year’s annual “all-star” race, as were all drivers from the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Any remaining open positions were filled based on 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship driver points. There also was a notable substitution, with Brian Vickers filling in for injured Tony Stewart, a three-time Sprint Unlimited champion. Vickers exited the race early, following a Lap 23 accident that also ended the night for three-time event champion Kevin Harvick.
The starting grid was determined Friday by a drawing involving the crew chiefs for the 25 drivers entered. Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus drew the top spot for his driver, a two-time DAYTONA 500 champion and six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
The non-points event was divided into two segments with a competition caution at Lap 25 separating the segments.
On Sunday, starting at 1:15 p.m. (ET), DAYTONA 500 Qualifying Presented By Kroger will begin the qualifying process for the Feb. 21 DAYTONA 500. The session will “lock in” the first two starting positions for the DAYTONA 500 and also will determine the starting grids for the Feb. 18 Can-Am Duel, a pair of 150-mile races that establish the remaining positions in the 40-car DAYTONA 500 field.
Prior to the Sprint Unlimited, John Wes Townley drove his No. 05 Zaxby’s Chevrolet to Gatorade Victory Lane in Saturday’s Lucas Oil 200 Driven by General Tire, the season-opening race for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards.
Townley started fifth in the 40-car field and went out to claim his second Lucas 200 Driven by General Tire title, beating the second-place No. 55 Liberty University Toyota of William Byron by 0.209 seconds. The No. 58 Lira Motorsports Ford of Kyle Weatherman completed the top three.
“It was quite a ride there for a while,” Townley said, after successfully negotiating the nuances of drafting on Daytona’s high banks. “We were really having to fight for it. Once you get up there [in the lead], that’s when the heart-stopping starts. You’re kind of a sitting duck, especially when you start to gain a little bit and once you get a car-length or two [ahead], you’re looking in your mirror you’re just saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a matter of time before they get a run, come up here and pass me.’”
Eight-time Lucas Oil 200 event champion of Bobby Gerhart Jr. fell victim to a nine-car collision on Lap 3. The accident ended the No. 5 Lucas Oil-Lucas Oil TV Racing Chevrolet’s night, and Gerhart’s chances of being one step closer to his 10-title goal at Daytona. Of the 40 cars, 17 finished on the lead lap.
Tickets for all Speedweeks 2016 events – including the 58th annual DAYTONA 500 on Feb. 21, the season-opening race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – can be purchased on-line at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP. Fans can stay connected with Daytona International Speedway on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube for the latest speedway news throughout the season.