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.


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.

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”