DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Given what Denny Hamlin overcame last season, it’s no wonder he won a race of attrition to start the new year.
Hamlin proved Saturday night he’s back from the back injury that ruined 2013. He missed five early races with a fractured vertebra, then spent the rest of the year driving with discomfort in a failed desperate bid to save his season.
He didn’t make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time in his career, and picked up his only win of the year in the season-ending race at Homestead.
Now, he has a win in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited to start the season and he’s not looking in the rearview mirror.
"Homestead kind of came out of the blue, especially how our year had went," he said. "We started feeling better. I realized after the win in Homestead, how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel. When I feel comfortable in the car … I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner."
On Saturday night it meant making a late charge through a decimated field to grab his second career victory in the Speedweeks opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Only eight cars were running at the end — the fewest since seven in 1981 — on a bizarre night that saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. end girlfriend Danica Patrick’s race and the Chevrolet pace car catch fire.
"When you think you’ve seen it all, then you see that. It’s never-ending," second-place finisher Brad Keselowski said about the pace car fire. "I thought it was race car. Someone said it was the pace car, and I couldn’t help but start laughing."
It was Hamlin who got the last laugh, in Victory Lane.
Hamlin charged to the front right before he took the white flag by diving to the inside and sailing past the few cars on the track. He then drove away in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
"That was survival of the fittest for sure," said Hamlin, also the winner as a rookie in 2006. "With three to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack. It’s really hard to get runs, but this car was phenomenal. You saw it those last couple of laps."
This year’s race had a heavy fan involvement as sponsor Sprint allowed fans to vote for various aspects of the race. Among them was the starting order, how the segments were split and how the cars lined up in the final segment.
But it was mostly for naught as half the 18-car field was knocked out six laps into the second segment when Matt Kenseth cut across the front of Joey Logano. It triggered a nine-car accident on the frontstretch — including Stenhouse’s dramatic late hit into the side of Patrick’s car.
"I got hit by my boyfriend. What a bummer," Patrick said.
Stenhouse took blame for ending Patrick’s race. He had difficulty seeing in front of him because his hood was badly crumpled when he hit the back of Kurt Busch.
"I just drilled her," Stenhouse said. "I didn’t see anything from the time it started to the time it ended. Talking to Danica, I drilled her when she was pretty much sitting still. I couldn’t see, couldn’t turn."
The accident left debris and mangled sheet metal all over the frontstretch and brought the race to a stop for just over 11 minutes. It ended the night for Tony Stewart, who was racing for the first time since he broke his right leg in an August sprint car crash, and teammates Patrick and Kurt Busch. Kevin Harvick, driving the fourth Stewart-Haas Racing entry in the field, seemed to have a Chevrolet capable of contending for the win but suffered serious damage that dropped him well off the pace.
Stewart said he felt physically fine after the hard hit, which left his car turned nose-first into the wall. Jeff Gordon’s car was stuck behind Stewart’s with its rear wheels raised by the front of Busch’s car.
"I was a little nervous … but it doesn’t feel bad at all," Stewart said. "I don’t have any pain. We’ll see when the adrenaline wears off. But so far, everything feels really good. I’m pretty happy with it."
Kenseth, whose changing of lanes triggered the accident, said he had no idea Logano was on his inside when he moved.
"Honestly, I had no idea anybody was inside of me," Kenseth said. "I feel bad all of those cars got wrecked."