Ryan: The choices that defined Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Team owner Joe Gibbs had an intimate view of the agony and the ecstasy in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

There was the joy of celebrating with winner Denny Hamlin, who won the race he’d been dreaming of winning since the second grade (“My wish is to win the Daytona 500,” he wrote nearly 30 years ago in a hand-written essay his mother shared Sunday night on Twitter). There was the dismay of consoling Matt Kenseth, who had a hammerlock grip on NASCAR’s crown jewel until the race’s final corner.

Having gauged everyone’s reactions, Gibbs had the fullest assessment of anyone at Daytona International Speedway.

Everything, he assured a roomful of inquisitive reporters, was fine at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Hamlin still had to know.

“Did (Kenseth) say anything bad about me?” he partly winced.

Gibbs paused for a telltale moment.

“Oh, God,” Hamlin said, his face turning pale. “Shoot!”

“Don’t stay in your motorhome tonight,” Gibbs cracked, striking a measured tone to add. “We joke about it, but for him, it wasn’t a joke. I mean, it was serious stuff.”

As serious as a heart attack – or whatever life-changing event of anxiety, pain and stress can convey the consequences of a split-second decision at 200 mph that can haunt a driver for years.

The 58th running of the Great American Race boiled down to two simple twists of fate, each of them excruciatingly distressing for a pair of teammates.

On Lap 156, Denny Hamlin gave the race away.

On the final lap, roughly 500 yards from the checkered flag, Matt Kenseth gave it back.

During a 500-mile race in which the bottom lane was overwhelmingly the preferred route around the 2.5-mile track, Kenseth swung to the high side to throw a block on Hamlin in the outside lane off the last turn.

Hamlin deftly dipped his No. 11 Toyota below Kenseth’s No. 20 and surged to the finish, nipping Martin Truex Jr. by 0.010 seconds in the closest Daytona 500 victory in history.

Kenseth finished 14th – the only consolation being he managed to avoided triggering a huge pileup while plummeting backward.

“They don’t get much more crushing than that,” he said, forcing a wry smile.

Ever the consummate professional, the 2003 series champion handled every question with aplomb and outwardly didn’t appear to be beating himself up about the move that cost him his third career win in the season opener.

Though he gamely tried to insist a few times Hamlin still would have won even if he’d stayed on the inside, Kenseth conceded there could be some “Monday morning quarterbacking.” And as his interviews wore on, he vacillated on whether he’d made the right call.

“Hindsight, I probably should have stayed in front of Martin (Truex Jr.) and tried to race him back to the line,” Kenseth said. “But it looked like (Hamlin) was going so fast I could get in front of him and get a little boost, and I just couldn’t.”

Though it seems a simple concept to hold the bottom line and hope for the best, it’s a big ask to make – even for a veteran as cunning and calculating as Kenseth, who drove a flawless race until the last lap brought an intractable decision.

Imagine exiting Turn 4 knowing that you might blunt the momentum of your biggest threat to win merely by moving in front of them.

Which is a better move to win the race?

Take action?

Or stand pat?

Even if the latter was the smartest play, the temptation to avoid the former would be too great for many to avoid.

“There’s a million things you could do differently, but I did what I thought I should do at the time to try to win,” Kenseth said. “We finished terrible, but that was the move I thought I had to make to try to preserve the win. He had such a big run, he was going to go right around me, in my opinion, anyway. I didn’t think we were in a good spot to try to win it with his run, so I was trying to get in front of him.”

Yet the question remained.

Would Kenseth have won if he’d hugged the yellow line and waited for Hamlin eventually to stall out — as dozens of other charges on the lead from the outside line had over the previous three hours?

If Kenseth stays low, does he win?

“Yeah, probably,” Hamlin said.

Ouch.

But the truth hurts, and the replays seem fairly definitive.

Though Hamlin had a full head of steam heading into the fourth turn thanks to a strong bump draft from Kevin Harvick, he still had barely enough momentum to nip Truex by inches at the finish.

If Kenseth just remained low, he probably stays ahead of Truex – and in first until the finish line.

“I was coming with this huge run,” Hamlin said. “I think when he pulled up the racetrack, he ran a longer distance around the racetrack.”

Of course, it’s easy to reflect upon the mathematics in the aftermath.

“Listen, I don’t want to second‑guess what (Kenseth) did because I don’t want to make him feel any worse than he probably already does,” Hamlin said.

The Chesterfield, Va., native would know, having watched the biggest victory of his career nearly slip from his fingers with a mistake during his final stop under green on Lap 156.

Entering the pits in first, Hamlin slid his tires entering the stall, necessitating a four-tire change instead of two and dropping him from first to seventh.

Kenseth emerged in first and led the next 40 laps with the security of a Toyota squadron (Truex and JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards) as wingmen.

“I blew it,” Hamlin said. “Got cocky. Every time we’ve ever had a green-flag pit stop or caution, I beat everyone off pit road. I’m sitting here like, ‘I’m the pit road master.’  Then I come in there and blow it and screw my tires up on the last stop that actually counts.”

It was a sickening feeling that he already knew from losing a qualifying race Thursday night on a dazzling move by Dale Earnhardt Jr. that caught Hamlin massively off guard – so much so that he reviewed the replay to confirm he simply had missed a spotter’s warning.

“I gave up the Duel win just being a complete bonehead and losing concentration for five seconds, and (Earnhardt) got around us,” Hamlin said. “Today, I was making sure I didn’t blink at all to not lose concentration.  It all worked out perfectly.”

Well, not quite perfectly for Joe Gibbs Racing. The party in victory lane – where Toyota executives snapped selfies after their first Daytona 500 win and JGR team members whooped it up after ending a 23-year drought in the prestigious event – wasn’t any less muted.

But it still was delicate.

“This is a great moment for me, but I feel awful for Matt because he’s such a great friend, such a great teammate,” said Hamlin, who called the victory “the pinnacle of my career.”

“You’re defined by the big moments,” he said.

And often the choices and circumstances that accompany them.

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.