This race had so much carnage, the pace car couldn’t even survive it.
Yes, you read that right. Only 8 cars out of 18 finished the Sprint Unlimited Saturday night at Daytona, and after a massive wreck and the pace car catching fire, it was Denny Hamlin who came out on top.
“That was survival of the fittest,” Hamlin said. “The best car won, that’s for sure.”
Hamlin’s No. 11 was certainly the hottest car all night, leading 27 of the 75 laps and making an impressive pass for the lead with just 2 laps to go. The win is the second in a row for Hamlin who won at Homestead to finish the 2013 season.
The back-to-back wins are welcomed by the No. 11 team after a rough 2013 season. A back injury early last year forced him to miss 4 races, and his season never recovered. But with the win, Hamlin feels things are looking up this year. “Every little accomplishment goes a long way with the team moral. I think we’re building on something big here,” he said.
Perhaps his best move though, was surviving the carnage. The fan-voted format of the race was a 30 lap segment and a 25 lap segment, followed by a final 20 lap segment. The melee came on the final lap of the first segment when the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth got into the No. 22 of Joey Logano.
“Honestly, I had no idea anybody was inside of me or had that run and I was watching my mirror, but I was also watching Denny (Hamlin) and I was, in hindsight, probably too focused on trying to help my teammate there,” Kenseth said. “I just feel bad all of those cars got wrecked. That’s not the way you want to start a season for sure.”
Nine cars were caught up in the wreckage, including all four Stewart-Haas Racing cars. Danica Patrick managed to slide through the mess mostly unscathed until Ricky Stenhouse Jr. plowed into her driver side door as he ran through the wreck.
“Got hit by my boyfriend – what a bummer right?” Patrick said after the wreck. “He said his hood was up & he couldn’t see me.”
Team owner Tony Stewart also got into a mess of his own. Tonight was Stewart’s return to racing for the first time since an injury in a sprint car wreck sidelined him in October. Stewart has been adamant about his excitement to be back in the racecar, but has said the bone in his leg is only 65% healed.
Fans were not the only ones holding their breath when things went haywire for Stewart. “I was little nervous about it cause knew we were probably going to hit face first there,” he said after the wreck. “So far (my leg) feels really good… We’ll see once the adrenaline wears off.” Stewart went to the Infield Care Center and was cleared.
One driver who was able to survive imminent disaster was Kyle Busch. His final segment save after getting turned into the grass seemed like a flashback to 2012 when he did the same thing twice in the Shootout race to hold one for the win. He came back from the damage to contend for the win with 3 laps to go, but ended up 3rd behind Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.
“I just sort of started doing the same stuff I did then (2012). Lot of brake, lot of gas, downshifting, everything in between,” Busch said. “All in all it turned out. I was lucky enough to get through it, make it on, carry on through the race, finish third. Just shy of what I ended up with last time I did that.”
Overall, many drivers noted that the exhibition race was still a great learning tool for next week’s showcase Daytona 500. “I’m bummed it got cut short, that was really fun,” Danica Patrick said. “It was a good warm up for me, good to get familiar with all the little things again.”
Hopefully next week, more than half the starting field will finish the race.
This article originally appeared on the Florida Sports Talk website, the media outlet for which Tori was covering the Daytona 500.