Surprise, surprise: Teams found Daytona track hard to handle

There were a lot of surprises that came out of the 2016 Daytona Speedweeks. Every day we seemed to see something incredible. We had a lot of action in the Sprint Unlimited, the Can-Am Duels, the Camping World Truck series race, the XFINITY race and then naturally the Granddaddy of them all, the Daytona 500.

I know the biggest surprise for the race teams was the condition of the track on Sunday. It was by far the warmest day we had experienced during Speedweeks at 75 degrees. The sun was beating down on the track, making it hot and slick, plus a lot of times during the race it was pretty darn breezy.

I just think a lot of teams were caught by surprise that there wasn’t as much grip in the track as they had expected or set their cars up for. When young Chase Elliott spun off Turn 4, my first assumption was it was just a rookie mistake. Unfortunately, his No. 24 ended up in the infield grass and ripped the nose off the car. Then when you saw others drivers struggling in Turn 4 it became clearer that a pattern was developing. We saw Kevin Harvick almost lose it there. Then when Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun out there as well, it was clear that handling for all the teams was an issue.

This was the guy that had the fastest car all week and was one of the favorites to win the race. Unfortunately, the car never performed up to expectations in the race as they chased handling issues all day long. No matter what they tried, they just never seemed to get the car to where Dale Jr. felt completely comfortable with the car he had nicknamed Amelia in honor of the world famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Unfortunately, he, too, spun in Turn 4 and ended up in the wall.

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I don’t think any of us were surprised as to how strong the Toyotas were. Even Dale Jr., who everyone said was the favorite to win, told folks that he thought the No. 11 car of Denny Hamlin was the car to beat. Denny won the Sprint Unlimited, which was the fourth time in the last five runnings of that race that it had been won by a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

The Gibbs Toyotas had a new alliance partner in Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing,  who in the off season made the switch from Chevrolets to Toyotas. And they just dominated the race. The four Gibbs cars and Truex combined to lead 156 of the 200 laps Sunday. There were four Toyotas in the Top 5 of Sunday’s race. Interestingly, at the end of 2015, Kyle Busch gave Toyota its first championship and then here we are at the beginning of the 2016 season and Denny gave it its first Daytona 500 win.

Some of the drivers we had seen with speed, like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, just never really were a factor on Sunday. Normally you look to Hendrick Motorsports to be a dominant organization at the restrictor-plate races but Sunday that simply wasn’t the case. They ended up with Chase and Dale Jr. wrecked out. Kasey Kahne was the highest finishing Hendrick car in 13th position and Jimmie ended up 16th.

I know a lot of folks in the Ford camp were hoping to see improvement this year from the Roush-Fenway Fords after the last few dismal years they have endured, but once again it simply didn’t happen. Twenty-second position was the best the organization could muster with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., with teammates Trevor Bayne 28th and Greg Biffle finishing two laps down in 34th. Part of Greg’s issues came from a very strange mistake when, during a pit stop, the team put a left rear tire on the right rear and the tire blew giving Greg’s Kentucky Fried Chicken Ford all kinds of problems.

There were a lot of positive things on that side of the ledger Sunday. The crowd was amazing. The new Daytona Rising stadium is something that you truly have to go visit to fully grasp the magnitude of it. I’ve never been to any arena, let alone a race track, that has ever been built like it. The amenities are simply unlimited now. There’s new suites, areas to hang out in. There’s new seating, more concession stands, more restrooms and even escalators. Seriously, whoever thought of seeing escalators at a race track? It simply is that grand of an achievement. If you are in Daytona for vacation, you have to take time and go explore what they have done over there because it is stunning.

I thought our NASCAR FOX team did an outstanding job Sunday. While there was a rookie in Chase Elliott on the pole in the No. 24, we also had a rookie up in the TV booth with the former driver of the No. 24 Jeff Gordon. Jeff fit in extremely well with Mike Joy and I. He did just great Sunday for his first-ever race broadcast. Trust me, I know how he felt because it probably was the same way I felt when I called my first Daytona 500 back in 2001.

I know some of the grumblings were that there were only 20 lead changes among 15 drivers all day long. They only had six cautions for 31 laps but I, for one, was thrilled they didn’t have "The Big One" and I think that’s a compliment to all 40 drivers out there. To me that truly showcases driver talent and skill. Remember, we’re talking about drivers on a hot, slick race track that are inches apart going 200 miles per hour. Jimmie Johnson mentioned it in his post-race comments that he was proud of all the drivers for showing they could race that long side by side and not have "The Big One."

It was a fun race to do and we ended up with the closest finish in Daytona 500 history. Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. by .01 seconds. That’s like faster than you can blink. A lot of folks thought Martin had pulled off the win, but you can clearly see on the replay how Denny just barely nosed him out for the win.

Speaking of Denny, I think it’s also really special in what he accomplished. The man is 35 years old and won the biggest race any stock car driver can ever win. You have to go back 28 years to 7-year-old Denny Hamlin. This is what he wrote in elementary school:

"My wish is to win the Daytona 500. If I won the Daytona 500 I would like it to come true February 17, 1998. My car would be red, white, blue and gold just like Bill Eloitt’s car. If I do win the Daytona 500 I could win 1,000,000 dollars. My crew cheif would be Cary Barden and my trie changer would be Enu Elloit. The reason for all of this is because I love racing."

So here was a young boy dreaming of someday winning the Daytona 500 and then accomplishing that dream. I think that is very inspiring for young kids out there all over the country. Your dream doesn’t have to be about winning the Daytona 500 but as I tell kids all the time, dream big because it just might — just might come true. If you have a passion like 7-year-old Denny Hamlin did, then you need to follow that passion. Write it down and maybe someday your Mom can pull it out and share it like Denny’s Mom did.

Now you all know how big I am into numbers. That was the 207th win for car No. 11. I was blessed to have quite a number of wins in it. Sunday was Denny’s 11th attempt to win the Daytona 500 in car No. 11. If you really want to blow your mind — add up how many letters are in the name Denny Hamlin — you guessed it — 11. It also reminds me of 1989 when everything was coming up 17 for me when I won my Daytona 500. I had told Hammond that morning that the way the whole number thing was working out we were either "going to win or finish 17th" and I bet Denny felt the same way Sunday as well.

Now we are off to Atlanta and the low-downforce package. Remember the teams raced this package twice last year so at least they have some experience with it. I expect an awesome race Sunday. Atlanta seems to always give us some of our most exciting and closest finishes. The weather looks awesome for Sunday and I expect the racing to be the same.