DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin will never forget Sunday’s Daytona 500. Neither will Matt Kenseth.
While Hamlin relished his “storybook” charge from fourth to first on the final lap, Kenseth pondered a final indignity in what was a disappointing Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.
“I feel l let my team down two straight weeks,’’ Kenseth said after losing the lead in the final mile.
Kenseth was that close to becoming the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win at least three Daytona 500s. Four of the five are in the Hall of Fame — Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and NBC Sports analyst Dale Jarrett — and the fifth, Jeff Gordon, is bound for the Hall when he becomes eligible.
But a Speedweeks where Kenseth seemed to make the wrong decision or get caught in the wrong situation late ended with another miscalculation.
He was involved in a last-lap crash in the Sprint Unlimited jockeying for position. He earned a front-row spot for the Daytona 500 but lost the position four days later when he was collected in a last-lap crash in his qualifying race.
He later said that after falling back in the pack in that race “that would have been a real great time for the light bulb to come on and call it a day.’’ Instead, the crash forced him to a backup car.
Then came Sunday’s split-second decision that backfired.
That such a move happened again was only more confounding. Kenseth is viewed by longtime observers as the driver most like David Pearson, who was known for his cunning and ability to make the right moves late in races. While Kenseth has been more dominant in races since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, he’s still often made the right moves late, winning 12 races.
His 13th would have given Joe Gibbs his first Daytona 500 win since 1993. Instead, Hamlin presented Gibbs with that gift after a dramatic final lap.
Kenseth led entering Turn 3 with Martin Truex Jr. tucked behind. Kevin Harvick pushed Hamlin on the outside line.
The top lane had not been too effective much of the race, but the group was tightly aligned and gave Hamlin a significant push.
“I didn’t lift,’’ said Joey Logano, who was pushed by Regan Smith and pushed Harvick. “(Harvick) went into (Hamlin), and he didn’t lift. All right, here we come.’’
Hamlin figured Kyle Busch, running third, would move up to steal his momentum. Busch didn’t.
Hamlin thought Truex then would do it. Truex didn’t.
Kenseth saw Hamlin’s surge and reacted.
“He had a big enough run where I felt like if I stayed on the bottom in front of Martin I was going to be second, at best,’’ Kenseth said afterward. “(Hamlin) had enough momentum that he was going to go by me regardless. I felt like my only shot for the win was to … get in front of him.
“He turned back under me and got me real loose and got in my left rear and went by. He did a masterful job.’’
Hamlin battled Truex for the lead as Kenseth fought to regain control of his car and fell back. He crossed the line 14th.
Kenseth didn’t fault Hamlin for the move or their contact.
“You’re trying to win the Daytona 500,’’ Kenseth said.
Kenseth just tried too hard.
“It’s a million things you could do differently,’’ Kenseth said, standing beside his car on pit road after the race as Hamlin celebrated in victory lane. “I did what I thought I should do at the time to win. We finished terrible. That was the move I thought I had to make to preserve the win.’’
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff is confident Kenseth would not have been contemplating what could have been had he been in his primary car instead of his backup car.
“I felt like it was going to be a little bit off of what our primary car was,’’ Ratcliff said. “If we would have had that bad boy today, ain’t no way they pass us. That car was really good.’’
Hamlin’s proved better, if only for a moment, and Kenseth will have to wait a year to atone for what happened here.