A daring three-wide move with two laps to go won Denny Hamlin Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
With teammate Kyle Busch looking to challenge Brad Keselowski for the lead on the backstretch, Hamlin had a choice. He could go with Busch, his teammate, and push the No. 18 car to the front ahead of Keselowski or he could go for the lead himself. After all, it's an exhibition race. There are no points involved.
Hamlin went for the latter, and dove towards the inside and around both Busch and Keselowski, pulling away over the final three-plus miles for the win.
The field was whittled down to eight cars for the final laps of the race as 10 of the race's 18 entries were eliminated via crashes. (Or in Terry Labonte's case, parking it after a lap.) As Hamlin's momentum carried him away from the field, the haphazard organization of the seven cars behind him meant that no one was able to line up and make a run for the win in the race's final moments.
Keselowski was second while Busch finished third.
The Unlimited annually provides a preview of how drafting will work in that year's Daytona 500, and there were two key takeaways from Saturday night: It's entirely possible that cars will be able to spin out by themselves in the middle of the draft, and cars are able to catch up to each other quicker than in 2013.
Jimmie Johnson was proof of the former in the final lap of the first segment. (The Unlimited was divided into three segments of 30, 25 and 20 laps.) While running second, Johnson, the defending Sprint Cup champion, made a move off of turn four to go for the lead around Hamlin. However, as he moved to the right, his car snapped around without any contact from the car behind him and the six-time champion went careening into the inside wall. He finished 17th.
The latter is a result of NASCAR's decision to increase the rear spoiler height on the cars by a half-inch in 2014. The bigger spoilers cut a larger hole through the air, allowing trailing cars to catch up more rapidly than before. That was evident when Matt Kenseth went to change lanes early in the second segment.
Kenseth had a hole on the inside line, but by the time his car had moved towards the yellow line, Joey Logano's car had already closed in on Kenseth's. Kenseth's rear bumper made contact with Logano's front bumper, and last year's runner-up in the points standings went spinning into the infield and collected six other cars in the night's biggest crash.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. avoided that crash, but wrecked out of the race in the final segment. Junior was receiving a push from Marcos Ambrose when Keselowski slid in front of Junior's car to blunt the No. 88's momentum. As Junior reacted accordingly, Ambrose was to his outside and the ensuing contact forced Junior into the outside wall.
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