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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Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson are members of each other’s fan club

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Following Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Bristol Night Race, Kyle Busch stopped by the NASCAR on NBCSN victory lane stage to give an expanded explanation of how he wound up not only winning the race, but also sweeping all three races of the weekend.

During the interview, Busch discussed numerous things about the race, but one part stood out: his complimentary explanation of racing with his namesake, Kyle Larson.

“I tell you what, I like Larson a lot, but he is an animal,” Busch said with a smile. “He just drives the heck out of a race car.

“He don’t care if you’re there. He’ll pull down in front of you and take that chance that you’ll cut him a break. And sometimes you can’t, sometimes you don’t, and I think that’s just sprint car mentality.

“Like when you’re going down a straightaway side-by-side with a guy in a sprint car and you just turn it off to the bottom and try to pull a slide job on another guy, you just don’t care. He better check up, or you’re both going to be up on your wing, you know what I mean?”

While Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett spoke to Busch, Larson put out a post-race tweet explaining his awe and appreciation of Busch and his talents.

Busch responded in kind.

“I appreciate that,” Busch said. “A lot of people would say those exact same words about Kyle Larson himself. And I do as well. I’ve raced against him in Trucks and Xfinity and watched him work his way up through the ranks. It’s fun to race guys like that.”

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No race today, but you can still check out Episode 2 of “The Pits”

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Don’t miss Episode 2 of “The Pits” and be on the lookout for the next episodes only on NBCSports.com/The-Pits.

Episode 2, sponsored by Sonic and brought to you by NBC Sports, features the pit crew and what comical adventures they get into after stepping off pit road.

Check out the video above.

 

 

Matt Kenseth had motivation chasing Erik Jones: ‘That’s my replacement, and I better run him down’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – There were two delicious subplots crystallizing with 100 laps to go Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Matt Kenseth was focused on only one.

Yes, a win by Furniture Row Racing rookie Erik Jones would have locked up another playoff berth and tightened the screws on winless drivers on the points bubble such as Kenseth

But as he chased after Jones, who will take over Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the championship wasn’t on his mind.

“I didn’t really think about that,” Kenseth said after finishing fourth, adding with a laugh. “I was really more thinking about, ‘That’s my replacement, and I better run him down and pass him to show him I can still do it better than he can.’ I had those thoughts. But I wasn’t thinking anything about the playoffs, I was thinking about trying to win the race.

“It’s human nature. Whoever you’re catching for the lead, you’re always thinking something about them, right? Where you can sniff the victory, your mindset changes a little bit. It’s not just another car, it’s the leader, so you think things like that every once in a while. My brain’s a scary place.”

The motivational tactics didn’t quite work as Kenseth came up short. But so did Jones, who led a race-high 260 of 500 laps but was runner-up to Kyle Busch (who swept the week of NASCAR races at the 0.533-mile oval for the second time in his career).

Afterward, Jones and Kenseth (who doesn’t have a confirmed ride for 2018) sat side by side in the media center for a postrace interview session that could have been awkward but was surprisingly jovial.

Asked how he was able to use the bumper of his No. 77 Toyota respectfully in traffic, Jones received a playful nudge and whisper from a smiling Kenseth.

“I was asking Erik how you run into somebody respectfully,” he joked.

“I didn’t mean to hit Matt,” Jones replied.

“Did you hit me?”

“Just barely.”

“Didn’t remember,” Kenseth said with his typically Cheshire cat grin. “Shouldn’t have brought it up.  Now I’m mad. You guys laugh, wait till we leave here. Takes my ride and runs into me!”

After the laughter subsided, Jones said the subplots weren’t on his mind, either, as he fended off Kenseth.

“When you’re out there, it’s just another car to pass,” Jones said. “At least I’d assume that’s how most people look at it. That’s how I look at it.

“Yeah, sure you get to some guy, you’re like, ‘That guy wrecked me last week,’ something like that.  For the most part, as long as you don’t have a grudge with the guy, it’s just another competitor.”

Said Kenseth: “Honestly I would have liked to see Erik get the win. It would have been fine with me. I wasn’t really thinking about the playoffs. It would just have been another one of our cars with a win, put another JGR Furniture Row Toyota in the playoff grid.”

With two races remaining in the regular season, Kenseth’s chances still seem decent without a victory. Along with Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray, Kenseth is among the three winless drivers who have a provisional playoff berth.

The trio is well ahead of the cutoff (Clint Bowyer is 58 points behind McMurray, who is three behind Kenseth and 11 behind Elliott), so provided there isn’t another first-time winner, it would take a collapse for them to be eliminated.

After what Kenseth called “the best day we’ve ever had” by the No. 20 pit crew, there is playoff optimism despite a winless streak that is at 13 months. Saturday marked his fourth top five in six races.

“I feel good about the next 12 (races),” Kenseth said. “When we’re at our best, we can run good at all those places.”

Erik Jones fails to live up to Bristol intro song, but earns best finish of Cup career

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Erik Jones made a pivotal mistake leading up to Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

He was one of six who forgot to choose their intro song prior to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

“I don’t even know who picked my song,” Jones said.

The Furniture Row Racing driver can thank someone named “DJ Du” for stepping up.

As a result, Jones was “a little surprised” when he appeared at the top of a ramp in Turn 3 to be introduced as the pole-sitter for the night’s race. The sounds of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” echoed throughout “Thunder Valley.”

“DJ Du” turned out not to be a prophet. But Jones did everything he could during the ensuing 500 laps to back up the song selection.

Making his 27th Cup start and his second at the .533-mile track, Jones led a career-high 260 laps. He matched wits with Kyle Busch, now a six-time Bristol winner, and Matt Kenseth, a four-time Bristol winner and the driver he’ll succeed in the No. 20.

The battle resulted in Jones finishing second, the best result of his Cup career.

Jones led nine times, swapping the lead with Busch, his former Camping World Truck Series owner, 10 times – three times in the last 139 laps.

Despite the lack of his first Cup trophy, Jones is confident it was the most fun he’s had to date in the Cup Series.

Though he’s only 21, the race reminded him of his good ol’ days driving modifieds.

“It takes you back to, you know, late model racing really more than anything,” Jones said. “You’re just on the gas. You’re not saving tires. You’re just hammer down and getting everything you can, which is a lot of fun. It’s hard on you as a driver, it wears you out, but you definitely have a lot of fun.”

Bristol, a track he’s won at twice in the Xfinity Series, reminds him of Winchester Speedway in Indiana, a .5-mile oval where he’s won three Winchester 400.

And he almost won like at Winchester.

Even Busch, who won all three Bristol races this week, thought it was Jones’ race to lose before he took the lead for good with 56 laps to go.

“He’s a phenomenal talent and a great race car driver,” said Busch, who first discovered Jones when he finished third to Jones in the 2012 Snowball Derby. “We knew that a long time ago. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing I found him or a bad thing I found him because one of these days I’m going to lose to him and I’m not going to be thrilled, but I’m still going to congratulate him.

“I thought today was actually going to be that day.”

Jones, who first experienced Cup action in 2015 when he relieved Denny Hamlin mid-race at Bristol, said leading a race for so long is a “burden,” especially for someone still figuring out how things work in the Cup Series.

“You’re letting all those guys be behind you get better and better and improve on their cars to gain up on you,” Jones said. “It’s hard to get your car better when you’re out front. You don’t really know what you need.”

If there was a burden, Jones said there was no pressure to win, even with a potential playoff spot waiting for him if he did visit victory lane.

With two races left in the regular season, he is 16th in the points standings but outside the 16-driver playoff grid.

“This was our best shot to win,” Jones said. “I was just actually really calm this week. I really had a sense we were going to run really well. … I feel really confident every time I come to Bristol. And, you know, kind of felt like we were going to be running up front, but just didn’t have enough.”

Saturday’s 500 laps left Jones the “most wore out” he’s been this season following a race, but he knows they’ll be instrumental when he finally gets to celebrate as Busch did Saturday night.

Said Jones: “You got to lose one to win one, right?”

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