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 Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” Daugherty said. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

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Germain Racing car owner Bob Germain announced Monday that he has sold the team’s charter and will end the team after this season.

The charter was purchased by a new team that will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as owners and Bubba Wallace as the driver.

Germain said in a statement that the No. 13 team will continue the rest of the season with Ty Dillon as driver.

“Being an owner in NASCAR for the last 16 years has been a thrilling and rewarding adventure,” Germain said in a statement. “From winning two NASCAR Truck Series championships in 2006 and 2010 to competing at the highest level of motorsports in the Cup Series for the last 12 seasons, I have experienced the highs and lows of our sport. I’m extremely proud of what Germain Racing has accomplished at every level and I will be transitioning out of ownership with many memories and friendships. I appreciate the interest and offers made over the last couple of weeks and I am excited to see how the sport continues to grow in the future.

“Thank you to GEICO for their loyalty to Germain Racing for over a decade. It has been a great source of pride for our team to represent their brand on the track. Doug Barnette with Player Management International has facilitated our GEICO relationship since the beginning and I truly appreciate his efforts. Finally, to my employees: building a team camaraderie and creating a family atmosphere has been a highlight of this journey. I will miss each of you.”

Germain pondered a sale when GEICO decided not to renew its contract after this season with the team.  GEICO is one of NASCAR’s Premier Partners, joining Busch Beer, Coca-Cola and Xfinity.

Dillon spoke in late August about the challenges facing single-car teams in Cup.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” he said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible amount of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Hamlin acknowledged the challenge a one-car team can have.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better,” Hamlin said before last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

Germain Racing is the second team to sell its charter since August. Leavine Family Racing announced it had sold its charter on Aug. 4. Spire Motorsports purchased it and will be a two-car team in 2021.

 

 

Denny Hamlin, Michael Jordan to own Cup team; Bubba Wallace to drive

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Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan will own a Cup team that will have Bubba Wallace as its driver for 2021, Hamlin announced on social media Monday night.

Hamlin said details about the single-car team, including name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors, will be announced at a later date. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter.

The partnership of Hamlin and Jordan brings one of the most recognizable figures in sports to NASCAR. Jordan won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. He became majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets in 2010.

MORE: Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is a “huge moment”

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to the races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting to me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordon high-fives the crowd before the 2010 NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Jordan becomes the second Black car owner of a full-time team. Brad Daugherty, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, is a co-owner in JTG Daugherty Racing. Once the charter sale is completed, Jordan will become the first Black majority owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR’s premier series since since Wendell Scott owned and raced his own cars in the 1960s and ’70s.

NASCAR issued a statement Monday night on Jordan joining the series.

“We proudly welcome Michael Jordan into the NASCAR family, and look forward to watching Michael, Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace compete in 2021. Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan’s entry likely doesn’t happen if not for his friendship with Hamlin and Hamlin’s interest in being an owner.

Hamlin said last weekend that he has been interested in ownership “for a while.

I still don’t know how long my driving career will go,” Hamlin said. “There are several different sides of management or what not that I would like to be a part of when it comes to NASCAR and the sport itself. It has to be the right opportunity and if it’s not the right opportunity, the right time then I won’t do it. Everything just has to line up perfectly for me to even remotely consider it.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better. Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

This is the second team to be sold this season. Leavine Family Racing sold its charter and assets to Spire Motorsports. That gives Spire Motorsports two charters for the 2021 season.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps was asked before the playoffs about a driver owning another team. He said it would be allowed.

The short answer is yes, but they would need to abide by our guidelines that we would be satisfied that this is not just a shell for a fifth team,” he said.

Jordan has been a long-time motorsports fan and supporter of Hamlin. Nike’s Michael Jordan Brand first had a deal with Hamlin in 2011, putting Jordan’s “Jumpman” logo on Hamlin’s firesuit.

The Jordan Brand grew more than 50% in China for fiscal year 2020, approaching $1 billion in annual revenue, John Donahoe, president and chief executive of Nike, Inc., said in an earnings call with investor analysts June 25.

Jordan attended the 2019 Cup championship race in Miami in hopes of celebrating a Hamlin title. Jordan also attended the 2014 title race and was among the first to greet Hamlin after he exited the car that day after failing to win the championship.

Jordan told NBC Sports’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. about his interest in motorsports last November at Miami.

“I’m a big racing fan,” Jordan said. “Started off when I was a kid. Grew up watching (Dale Earnhardt Sr.), Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, which was the original 11 that I remember. Now I’m good friends with Denny Hamlin. We go way back. He’s a season ticket holder at the (Charlotte) Hornets (owned by Jordan). I spend a lot of time playing golf with him.”

Asked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. about any interest in becoming a NASCAR team owner, Jordan said: “No, I’ve got a lot on my plate. I love being a fan. I still understand the sport, but in terms of ownership, nah, I think I’m just going to sit back and watch it and support from afar.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full season in Cup. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

Wallace, the only Black driver competing full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three national series. He has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

Wallace previously stated he had offers from Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.