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The first 200 laps of competition for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2016 season took place at the crown jewel of stock car racing. A facility recently renovated under the Daytona Rising initiative focused on greater fan comfort (a plan also including the reduction of seating from the 2014 capacity of over 145,000 to approximately 101,000), the track configuration contributing to high-speeds and multi-car drafting remained the same. This year's Daytona 500 saw the race decided in a matter of less than half the distance of the 2.5-mile track on the final lap.
Before the Green Flag
Since 1982, the Daytona 500 has been the stage to start of the Cup Series season. Ahead of the green flag for the 58th annual 500 mile race at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway oval, several radical changes have been instituted for the new Sprint Cup Series season. A new charter team structure guarantees 36 teams will start every race this season. The field count of NASCAR Sprint Cup races is also shrinking from 43 to 40 cars. A new digital dash display mandated for all cars and a tweaked green-white-checker finishing procedure is now in place.
In single-car qualifying on the Sunday prior to the Daytona 500, Chase Elliott in his full-season debut in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rounded the Daytona International Speedway with an average speed of 196.314 miles per hour. Elliott and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver Matt Kenseth locked into the front row positions while the remainder of the field's placement would be decided in the Can-Am Duel 150 races won by Dale Earnhardt Jr's #88 Chevrolet and Kyle Busch's #18 Toyota.
Among the top favourites for the 2016 Daytona 500 included Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kyle Busch and last year's winner Joey Logano. After winning the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race on Saturday, February 13th, Denny Hamlin's name and the #11 Toyota was added to the top list of possible winners. Busch and Earnhardt Jr. victories cemented the their chances as being better-than average. In the moments before the Grand American Race, some even pondered the rookie polesitter's opportunity to win the Daytona 500.
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Starting his stint in the historic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS from the pole, Chase Elliott led the first three laps of the 2016 Daytona 500 with his NAPA-sponsored vehicle. Taking over the machine belonging to the now-retired Jeff Gordon, Elliott drove with some assistance of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr in those initial laps. By the time field reached the start/finish line for the fourth lap however, the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet of Earnhardt Jr. sailed by the young Chase Elliott.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr controlled the early stage of the event, Chase Elliott's first Daytona 500 pursuit came to an abrupt end on lap 20. The #24 NAPA car lost grip in the draft out of turn four and swept into the infield grass severely damaging Elliott's race vehicle. Out of contention, the Hendrick Motorsports crew did repair the Chevrolet SS for the rookie to return 40 laps down but ultimately finishing the race.
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Action in the Race
The 2016 Daytona 500 could hardly be categorized as an exciting race to watch. For most of the race, competitors appeared extremely cautious with few major overtaking measures. In total, 20 lead changes is on the low side for a NASCAR Sprint Cup restrictor plate event. Many of those lead changes occurred through pit stops rather than on-track swaps for the top position. Leading from the end of the race's second caution on lap 61, Jimmie Johnson's 18 laps at the front ended in one on-track pass conducted by Kyle Busch. The #18 Toyota took the first place position and quickly displaced Johnson from the front. Busch and the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin held a stranglehold on the lead that would be reflected late in the 2016 Daytona 500.
While there were on-track incidents in this 2016 500-mile race, the lack of a major multi-car wreck just much of the field intact to finish at Daytona. Of the 40 starters, 31 were recorded as finishing on the lead lap. Only Chris Buescher and Matt DiBenedetto failed to make it beyond the halfway point of the Daytona 500. Driver Buescher of the #34 Ford and DiBenedetto piloting the #83 Toyota were involved in a scary lap 93 crash. While both drivers left their vehicles slowly, they avoided serious injury.
As the race was reaching the third-quarter distance mark, a major contender lost his opportunity to claim a third Daytona 500. In an incident somewhat similar to Chase Elliott's early race crash, the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS of Dale Earnhardt Jr suddenly lost control and shot down the track out of turn four. Earnhardt Jr's car collided front-first with the inside retaining wall. Driving his favourite restrictor plate racing car from the Hendrick Motorsports stable, the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500 race winner had to settle for a 36th place finish.
Leading from lap 160, the #20 Dollar General Toyota Camry driven by Matt Kenseth was in prime position to win the Daytona 500 for his third time. Late in the race, a five-car draft between Toyota vehicles (four Joe Gibbs Racing and the #78 Furniture Row Racing car driven by Martin Truex Jr) appeared to have kept other competitors at bay.
Leading 40 consecutive laps, Kenseth only needed to lead the final circuit to claim the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Taking the white flag, Denny Hamlin's #11 FedEx car broke the all-Toyota lead draft out of turn 2. Merging ahead of the #4 Chevrolet SS of Kevin Harvick, Hamlin sailed forward with the momentum of the late-race aerodynamic push on the backstretch. The #11 car charged Matt Kenseth through turn 3 resulting in a three-car battle to the checkered flag. As Denny Hamlin was approaching to pass Matt Kenseth on a high lane, the #20 car attempted to block the advance. Kenseth's car reacted poorly causing the two-time winner of the Daytona 500 to back off the throttle to avoid wrecking through turn four. As Hamlin passed the #20 Toyota, the #78 Toyota in the hands of Truex Jr made a hard charge along an opening in a lower lane. It was a drag race between Hamlin and Truex Jr down in the final stretch. While the #78 car appeared to grab a narrow advantage, Denny Hamlin inched deeper forward as the two cars reached the finish line. By a mere 0.010 of a second gap, Hamlin and his #11 FedEx Toyota won by a photo finish.
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Due to the closeness of the finish, Denny Hamlin wasn't immediately sure race won the 2016 Daytona 500. In a post-race press conference, Hamlin recalled, "I didn't know we had won. I knew it was close. I saw the pylon change and blink at the last second for the 11. I heard on the radio people were all crazy, excited. I assumed we won when that happened".
Denny Hamlin parlayed a strong overall effort in NASCAR's Daytona Speedweeks to be the winner of the ultimate prize. His first Daytona 500 win, the Virginian native Hamlin becomes the fifth driver to win the invitational Sprint Unlimited and the big race in the same Speedweeks. Hamlin also locks up the first berth in the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase with his victory. For Toyota, this is the Japanese-based brand's first Daytona 500 win as a manufacturer.
Job Gibbs Racing Dominates DaytonaWinning the Daytona 500 in 1993 with Dale Jarrett as a driver, Joe Gibbs Racing won their second Great American race 23 years later as a completely different team. Having won four Sprint Cup championships between that time and switch manufacturers to Toyota, the team's 2016 win was largely a four-car team affair consisting of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. 154 of the race's 200 laps at Daytona International Speedway had a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota out front (Hamlin held the spot for 95 of those circuits). While Carl Edwards in the #19 car encountered problems through the early part of the race, he still figured into the late stage of this year's Daytona 500 ultimately finishing fifth.
With four official entrants, Joe Gibbs Racing also approached the 2016 Daytona 500 with a new satellite operation. Switching from Chevrolet to Toyota, Furniture Row Racing and driver Martin Truex Jr seemed to enjoy the immediate benefits of the new motorsport corporate partnership. Despite an uneasy start in qualifying where a roof flap malfunction prevented the #78 Toyota from posting a time, the second-place finish in their first outing can only build optimism.
In the final results, the Joe Gibbs Racing supported Toyota Camrys driven by Denny Hamlin, satellite entrant Martin Truex Jr and Kyle Busch took the top-three spots. A fifth place for Carl Edwards allows the organization to claim four of the top-five positions for Toyota.
Hendrick's Heartbreak at DaytonaHendrick Motorsports brought came to the 2016 Daytona 500 with some proven restrictor plate prowess. Chase Elliott took the pole in a Daytona time trials that saw the three of the four Chevrolet team cars vying in the final round of 12 competitors. In race #1 of the Can-Am Duel 150, Dale Earnhardt Jr passed eventual Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to be victorious.
The race for Hendrick Motorsports was an unexpected sea of disappointment. With Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr crashing out of contention, only Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne were left in position to fight for the race. Recovering from a 28th starting spot received due to a late crash in his Can-Am Duel 150 race, Johnson's #48 Lowe's Chevrolet was briefly a factor. Unfortunately, a pit miscue resulted in a penalty that Jimmie Johnson and the team were unable to fully assert themselves as a frontrunner. The #48 Chevrolet finished 16th while the final Hendrick Motorsport entry driven by Kasey Kahne was the highest placing member of the team coming across the line 13th.
For most of the race, the #42 Target Chevrolet driven by Kyle Larson consistently and quietly was close to the front. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished 7th behind last year's Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano. Larson's teammate Jamie McMurray ran decently also for most of the day but settled with a 17th place result.
Pleasant Surprises in the Final Results
Most the biggest surprises in the top-10 of the 2016 Daytona 500 was the appearance of the #7 Golden Corral/Nikko Chevrolet piloted by Regan Smith. Smith and his Tommy Baldwin Racing team crossed the line in 8th place. While Tommy Baldwin Racing was a member of the Sprint Cup Series new Charter Team system, the #59 Chevrolet for team owner Joe Falk was not. Racing into the Daytona 500 through the Can-Am Duel 150, Michael McDowell endured 200 laps with the team to finish a respectable 15th place.
Denny Hamlin and the Joe Gibbs Racing will have a short time to celebrate their 2016 Daytona 500. Next Sunday, the now-running NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will be racing on the Atlanta Motor Speedway for another 500-mile affair.