Joe Gibbs Racing opened a new season exactly where it left off last year: On top of the podium.
Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited — the kickoff to Speedweeks — on Saturday night to give JGR its third consecutive win in the exhibition race. JGR drivers have actually won the Unlimited in four of the last five years, and Hamlin has three victories since 2006.
Hamlin overcame early damage to his Toyota to score his first victory with new crew chief Mike Wheeler, who was a longtime engineer for the No. 11 team before his promotion. Wheeler gambled on fuel strategy, a luxury he had because the results of the race have no meaning, and spent most of the closing laps encouraging Hamlin to save fuel.
"I don’t know if he was poised. He was poised on the radio," Hamlin said about the crew chief. "We’ve got such a young team, crew chief, engineers, they all look like they’re a bunch of high school kids."
Winning this exhibition race doesn’t always translate into Daytona 500 success. The last driver to win the opening race and the 500 was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
Joey Logano, last year’s Daytona 500 winner, finished second in a Ford and was followed by Paul Menard, Kyle Larson and Casey Mears, all in Chevrolets.
JGR was the most dominant team for most of last year and put all four of its drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The title then went to JGR driver Kyle Busch, who won the season-finale at Homestead to earn his first Sprint Cup championship.
All four JGR cars worked well together Saturday night, which Hamlin noted is a good sign of things to come this season.
"This win couldn’t be possible without my teammates," Hamlin said. "Matt (Kenseth) sacrificed so much, pushing me at the right time. Total team effort. Just like Kyle’s championship, we win as one. This is a Joe Gibbs Racing win."
Brian Vickers’ return to a race car lasted just 23 laps before a tire problem caused him to lose control of the car he was driving for injured driver Tony Stewart. The incident triggered a six-car accident that included Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick.
"It’s unfortunate I’m in this car because that means Tony is sitting at home," Vickers said. "But I’m just doing the best I can. It’s an honor to fill this seat. I was just out there having fun until we got into the wall. It wasn’t anyone’s fault we just cut a tire. We will just go get them for the Daytona 500."
The race gave NASCAR its first chance to try its new overtime rule, which states the leader must cross a marker to make a race official. Hamlin hit that spot as he tried to hold off Logano and Menard, and a wreck behind the leaders eventually brought out the caution that froze the field and sealed Hamlin’s victory.
"It didn’t really come into play because we took the white flag under green, which was the same under the old format," Logano said of the new overtime rule.
The race is a chance for teams to shake off any cobwebs from the offseason and ready for the Feb. 21 season-opening Daytona 500. Drivers are usually anxious and wrecks are common: Only 12 of the 25 cars finished on the lead lap and 10 cars failed to finish the race.
"I don’t know if it’s a non-points race that plays into it or if it’s just superspeedway racing," Logano said. "Typically in the Unlimited, there a lot of crashes."
Larson considered himself lucky to be among the finishers.
"I learned that I had a lot of luck. I missed probably three or four really close wrecks there," Larson said. "Hopefully I didn’t use up all my luck before next Sunday."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., always a favorite at Daytona and winner of last July’s race here, was involved in an early accident and finished four laps behind Hamlin.
"Typical. Everybody is excited to get in the cars and be competing in a race, so they are really aggressive," he said. "This race is always really aggressive. There is nothing on the line. There are a lot of accidents, torn up cars in this race pretty much every year. It’s a good one to win. When you win it, you did a good job and Denny did a good job."