DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin made a daring late-race pass, moving from fourth to first in the final two turns to beat Martin Truex Jr. to the checkered flag by 0.010 seconds (or about a foot) to win the Daytona 500. It's the closest finish in the 58-year history of the historic race.
The four Joe Gibbs Racing cars, plus the affiliate car of Truex, were the class of the field throughout Sunday's race. Hamlin led the most laps, but had ceded the lead to teammate Matt Kenseth, who led the field for 40-straight laps. Kenseth seemingly had it won, as no one could muster up enough speed to make a pass in the outside lane. He paced the field down the backstretch on the final lap. That's when Hamlin made his move.
As Kenseth went up to block, Hamlin darted to the middle. Kenseth's car started to slide but he saved it, leaving Hamlin and Truex to battle for the win. Truex looked to have the advantage as the two headed to the tri-oval but Hamlin inched ahead at the finish line.
"I felt like I had enough momentum to keep him behind me," Truex explained. "I did all the way up until that last couple feet. He just shot out that last couple inches on me right before the line.
"Wish I would have crowded him up the track a little bit more late down the frontstretch. Those are split‑second decisions. He came out on the right end of it today."
As video of the finish played on a screen next to him, Truex added, "Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my life. So it hurts a little."
It's Toyota's first Daytona 500 win and it comes on the heels of the manufacturer's first Sprint Cup title. Busch won the 2015 championship. It's also the first Daytona 500 for Joe Gibbs Racing since Dale Jarrett won in 1993.
Before Hamlin's incredible final mile, drivers leading the race weren't especially vulnerable. His pass for the win was just the fourth pass for the lead that didn't happen under yellow or as a product of green flag pit stops.
Hamlin (95), Truex (2), Busch (19) and Kenseth (40) combined to lead 156 of the race's 200 laps. No other team or manufacturer could come close.
The prevailing thought entering the race was that Hendrick Motorsports would provided the best competition for the Toyota cars. They did, though two Hendrick cars found trouble exiting turn 4 in very similar circumstances.
Chase Elliott crashed first, as he lost the car exiting the corner on lap 20 and spun into the infield. Elliott didn't make contact with anything but the splitter of his car dug into the grass and ripped the front bumper off.
Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun in a similar position on lap 171. But unlike Elliott, he hit the wall and crushed the front end of his car. Junior led 15 laps before he crashed and finished 36th.
Podcast: Q&A with EARNHARDT NATION author Jay Busbee: