Denny Hamlin holds off Martin Truex Jr. to earn closest win in Daytona 500 history

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Denny Hamlin held off Martin Truex Jr. to win Sunday’s 58th Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway by .01 of a second, the closest finish in the history of the Great American Race since the advent of electronic timing and scoring.

Truex looked like he might win, but Hamlin surged just before the start-finish line to take the checkered flag. It was Hamlin’s first career win in 11 starts in the 500, and also the first win with new crew chief Mike Wheeler.

“This is the best,” Hamlin said in victory lane. “I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500. This is the pinnacle of our sport ,and I’m just proud to be here.”

Truex finished second, followed by defending Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards in fifth.

“I did all I could do,” Truex said. “I’m really proud of that effort. He just side-drafted me. I probably should have run (Hamlin) up a little more. I lost it at the last second.”

Sixth through 10th were defending 500 winner Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Regan Smith, Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch.

Matt Kenseth led heading into the final lap, but Hamlin got a strong run on the backstretch. Kenseth tried to block his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, bumped fenders with Hamlin’s car, and was forced to back off to avoid wrecking.

Kenseth, who was hoping for his third Daytona 500 win, finished 14th.

Hamlin led the most laps (95) of the 200-lap event, followed by Kenseth’s 40 laps, Kyle Busch’s 19 laps, Jimmie Johnson (18) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15).

Earnhardt was involved in a hard wreck on Lap 169 and finished 36th, one spot ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500

HOW HAMLIN WON: The driver of the No. 11 Toyota was running fourth when the final lap began. He got a great push from Kevin Harvick, muscled his way past Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who tried to block him, and then got a late surge coming down the frontstretch to beat Truex to the finish line. Hamlin becomes only the fifth driver in NASCAR history to win both the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500 in the same edition of Speedweeks. The others to do so were Bobby Allison (1982), Bill Elliott (1987), Dale Jarrett (1996 and 2000) and Jeff Gordon in 1997

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Furniture Row Racing switched from Chevrolet to Toyota this year for Martin Truex Jr., as well as established a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. As a result, JGR essentially had four drivers in the top five: Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Busch and Edwards. … Kyle Busch scored a top-five finish after missing this race a year ago when he was injured in the Xfinity race the day before the 500. … Regan Smith, who spun early in the race, finished eighth for his third top-10 in his last five Daytona 500 starts.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: One of the favorites to win, Dale Earmhardt Jr., wrecked on Lap 169. Earnhardt’s car got loose and hit the retaining wall coming off Turn 4. “It caught me by surprise there,” Earnhardt told Fox Sports. “We were starting to move forward, getting aggressive and yeah, I just lost it.” … Pole sitter Chase Elliott spun into the infield grass on Lap 19, suffering splitter and right side damage. He had to be towed back to the garage. He returned to the track on Lap 60 after repairs were made.  … On Lap 183, Danica Patrick and Greg Biffle tangled, with Patrick’s car suffering heavy damage. She ultimately went to the garage on Lap 186 and finished 35th. … The day ended early on Lap 92 for Matt DiBenedetto and 2015 Xfinity Series champ Chris Buescher, who wrecked together, with both cars suffering heavy damage. Buescher finished 39th, DiBenedetto last in the 40-car field.

NOTABLE: Hamlin gave team president J.D. Gibbs perhaps his greatest birthday present. Gibbs, who has battled health issues the last year, turned 47 on Sunday. … Brian Vickers, replacing the injured Tony Stewart, was involved in a wreck but came back to finish 26th.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I don’t know where that came from, I don’t know what happened, I can’t even figure out what I did, but it all just came together.” – said Denny Hamlin, who shed tears as he held his longtime girlfriend and their baby daughter.

WHAT’S NEXT: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Sunday, Feb. 28, at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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Who had more fun Sunday, Tony Stewart or crew chief for first career win?

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Mike Bugarewicz has a hard enough job as a NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief.

But that job just got a little easier – at least for one race – after his driver, Tony Stewart, won Sunday at Sonoma.

Not only was it Stewart’s first win since 2013 – and the 49th of his Sprint Cup career – it was also Bugarewicz’s first win atop a Cup pit box.

“I’ve only worked at Stewart-Haas (Racing), this is my third year, (the first) two years with Kevin (Harvick) as his engineer,” Bugarewicz said. “Every win is sweet whether I’m a race engineer or crew chief or whatever, it’s all great.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet that it was my first, but our goal from the beginning of the year was to get Tony back in victory lane, and I’m just so glad that we could get him there.”

Stewart made headlines Friday when he said during his weekly media availability that “driving a Sprint Cup car does not make me happy right now” ,and that is why he’s looking so forward to retiring at season’s end.

But after Sunday’s win, Bugarewicz said his driver’s mindset might have changed a bit more to the positive side of things – and that he certainly had some fun in Sunday’s win.

“I did not remember to ask him that,” Bugarewicz said about failing to ask Stewart if he was having fun before Sunday’s race. “I just assumed by the look of his face that he was enjoying it.

“One thing I will say, no matter what, every week it’s the last thing I say to him before I leave the car and he actually reminded me of that today.

“He said, ‘If I get angry and start yelling at you today, just remind me to have fun.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know how that’ll work out for me.’ But no, we always talk about that. What’s most important for all of us is just enjoy it, take it in. You have to do that.”

While Bugarewicz and his team did everything they could to help Stewart to victory lane, in the end it was Stewart who did what he needed to do.

That included being mum on the team radio on the final lap.

“I stayed pretty quiet,” Bugarewicz said. “The spotter was keeping in touch with him. He didn’t say much, either.

“In those situations I just like to let (Stewart) concentrate and let him do his thing. He’s got a lot going on, especially at a place like this, so we just let him focus.”

But Bugarewicz also had something that only one other Sprint Cup team (six-time champ Jimmie Johnson) has — a driver with multiple Cup titles.

“Having a three-time champion who knew he had an opportunity today is a big thing,” Bugarewicz said. “At the end of the day, we only won because of his desire and his drive and his want.

“I truly believe that with these competitors and how good all the cars are and these top-tier drivers, that’s all it is. It’s a matter of who wants it more at the end of the day in most cases. Today, Tony wanted it more.”

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Denny Hamlin on losing to Tony Stewart: ‘It’s not like I gave him one by any means’

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Denny Hamlin did everything he could to hold off a last-lap charge by Tony Stewart, but he just couldn’t hang on.

Stewart got by Hamlin on the final turn of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway to earn his first win since 2013 – and left Hamlin to ponder how this one got away.

“I shouldn’t have given him that opportunity (on the last lap),” Hamlin said over his team radio.

In a postrace interview on Fox Sports 1, he expanded on that.

“I got in there, didn’t wheel-hop or anything, just slid up a little bit in the middle and allowed him to get a real good run on me,” Hamlin said. “Once (Stewart) had inside position; we weren’t going to drag-race at that point.

“I knew he was going to put me in the wall. He’s doing what he has to do, and we’re trying to do what we have to do. All’s fair in love and war.”

Hamlin finished 0.625 seconds behind Stewart.

“We had a really good car,” Hamlin said in a postrace media session. “Obviously the best road course car I’ve had.”

Hamlin leaves Sonoma still looking for his first career Sprint Cup road course win. His career best at Watkins Glen International also is a second (in 2007).

Hamlin took the lead on the last lap, passing Stewart in Turn 7 after the latter made a mistake by overdriving the turn.

“I thought with two or three (laps) to go, he pretty much had it, but he made a couple mistakes and allowed us to get pretty close,” Hamlin said. “We just both wheel-hopped into 7, and I just let off my wheel-hop a little bit so I could get to his rear bumper and get him out of the groove just a touch.

“It was perfectly executed, but … I didn’t run a low enough line in Turn 11 from wheel-hopping in Turn 7. I got the rears hot, wheel hopped it a little bit again, got out of line, and obviously gave him the inside line. … We definitely had a car that should have won, but we were on the bad end of the deal.”

Hamlin admitted he was worried that if Stewart could get to his back bumper heading into the 11th and final turn of the last lap, that his rival might try to turn him.

“I didn’t know if he would physically spin us out,” Hamlin said. “I thought there was a very good chance of it because that’s his opportunity to get in the Chase ultimately.”

Hamlin then said with a laugh, “I mean, how many more chances is he going to have? I think this is by far the best he’s run all year, and he’s in his final season, so his give a (expletive) factor is probably really low to be honest with you.”

Still, though disappointed at his runner-up finish, Hamlin was philosophical about it, coupled with the relationship he’s had with Stewart – a former teammate, as well – over the years.

“Tony has been ultra fair to me quite a bit,” Hamlin said. “He’s treated me really well my entire career. It’s not like I gave him one by any means. He gave us an opportunity to move him, we did, and then we got it back. It’s just part of the deal.”

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What drivers said after Sonoma race

SONOMA, CA - JUNE 26:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Code 3 Assoc/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 26, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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Drivers had much to say after Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 won by Tony Stewart. Here’s what drivers said:

TONY STEWART — Winner: “I made mistakes the last two laps. I had just a little bit too much rear brake for Turn 7, and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row. But I felt a nudge when I got down there, and he knew where it was, and (Denny Hamlin) did the right thing doing it there; but if I could get to him, he knew what was coming. He told me he was proud of me. He knows what it means. We were teammates for a long time, and we respect each other a lot.”

DENNY HAMLIN — Finished 2nd: “Just like you heard Tony say, I thought with two or three to go, he pretty much had it, but he made a couple mistakes and allowed us to get pretty close, and then we just both wheel-hopped into (Turn) 7, and I just let off my wheel hop a little bit so I could get to his rear bumper and get him out of the groove just a touch. It was perfectly executed, but I was going through the esses knowing that I needed to get the biggest gap that I could … I didn’t run a low enough line in Turn 11 from wheel-hopping in Turn 7. I got the rears hot, wheel-hopped it a little bit again, got out of line and obviously gave him the inside line. We definitely had a car that should have won, but we were on the bad end of the deal.’’

Joey Logano — Finished 3rd: “I thought I could win the race there at the last lap when you are watching those two going into 7 and 11, and you’re running third.  You think you’re in a pretty good spot to win this thing.  I’m thinking that they’re most likely going to crash each other.  It was a fun race to watch.  Going into Turn 11 I was 100 percent sure that Denny was not going to win just by watching it, and we were right there on the cusp of trying to sneak one by.  It would have been a gift if we got it, but hey, take them anyway you can.”

Carl Edwards — Finished 4th:“I appreciate Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. giving me the space there. Joey (Logano) got loose, I got under him, and Dale was three-wide. It was fun to race. Congrats to Tony; I know he drove his heart out there. It’s pretty neat to see him in victory lane.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 5th: “It was a lot of fun racing out there today. Feel like we had the best car, we just couldn’t get track position. Every time we would get past the guys that we were racing on the racetrack, caution would come out, and guys would beat us out of the pits. Little frustrated with that. Thought we had the car to win, and then that last set of tires we just got in position, and we just got too loose.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 6th: “I’m just really proud of Tony (Stewart). That is really the best thing. We didn’t have a lot of good happen today. We fought all day on pit road and got a decent finish out of it. But other than that we had a little bit of a struggle with getting it to turn.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 7th: “I don’t know what happened at the end of the race, but thought we had a shot to end up in the top four at least. For some reason there at the end, it blew the rear tires off there at the end on the last run when I was trying to race those guys for the top four. I couldn’t even gain on them. I was just trying to hang with them. We just burned the rear tires off on that last run just trying too hard and went backwards.”

Kasey Kahne – Finished 9th: “We started off pretty good, and I just needed to be a little looser. We were on the tight side. So, we tried to loosen it up and for whatever reason it was the exact opposite. I got really tight then. So then we started going the other way with adjustments. We just kind of gave up the middle portion of the race.  If we hadn’t done that I think we were maybe better like a top five, but ninth is OK.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 10th: “We battled really hard, I was somewhat surprised by the lack of grip in the rear of the car. It showed a little bit of that in practice, and some of the other guys had the same issues as far as our teammates. We just didn’t correct it enough. It’s my fault that I didn’t relay the information well enough. Congratulations to Tony Stewart, this is a huge day for SHR. To have three cars in the Chase, to have Tony’s confidence up, to have him battle Denny Hamlin like that this is the best way for a champion like him to go out.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 13th: “We were OK. We had the same strategy as the No. 14 going and then we were coming in the next lap, and the caution came out.  It kind of hurt us there to leap frog those guys and the transition we were looking for. We just kind of rode from there.”

AJ Allmendinger – Finished 14th: “Randall Burnett (crew chief) and all the guys Brain Burns, Tony Palmer, all my guys they did a great job.  We weren’t very good. We were pretty junky on Friday.  They worked hard to get this thing as good as it could be. Such a strange race. At one point you think the tires go off and then you find something and manage them again. I thought whatever it was, 25 to go, we were coming. So in the end just a bad pit stop and let the tire get away and penalty. That took away our chance to win the race.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 15th: “It was a hot day. We had better speed than we’ve ever had before, but I just made too many mistakes.”

Greg Biffle — Finished 18th: “We had about a 16th-place car and that’s right about where we finished. We just fought all day and tried to hold our track position, but that’s just as fast as our car was. It was a really good call by Brian Pattie and the team on how to call the race. They did a great job. It couldn’t have worked out better for us, but that’s all we had.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 26th: “We just weren’t very good. We were really good on the long run, if I could save my tires, but I didn’t have any short-run speed. That really made the restarts tough to not lose any track position, but still not wear out my tires. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board for the road course here. We definitely struggled today.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 23rd: “It was a long day. Early on we short-pitted and got some track position. We had some good fortune (with the second caution), but I gave all the spots right back.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 25th: “We just ran around 25th all day. We tried some different strategies, but none of them seemed to work, and we never got any track position. I feel like I learned a lot, and we had decent speed at the end. We had top-15 speed, but we just never had track position.”

Clint Bowyer – Finished 40th: “It had to be the ignition. It was a wiring fire. I’ve had oil smoke and stuff like that before in the car blowing out but I’ve never had an electrical fire. Man it shook me out. I couldn’t breathe. I bailed out and the thing starts rolling, so I had to reach in and put it in gear. That’s a great start to the day.”

Tony Stewart describes wild last-lap finish at Sonoma (video)

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Tony Stewart has had some wild finishes in his career, but Sunday’s last lap victory — passing Denny Hamlin (and punting him slightly into the wall) on the last turn of the race — will likely rank among one of the wildest of Stewart’s career.