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.