Denny Hamlin wins 61st Annual Daytona 500

Michael Harms , Courier Staff

Denny Hamlin’s eyes peered upwards for a split second to watch the checkered flag conclude the great American race, the Daytona 500. No driver was in front of Hamlin, who won his second Daytona 500 in four years and honored his team’s late owner in the process.

Hamlin’s No. 11 finished a storybook ending for the Gibbs racing family. JD Gibbs was a co-founder of the Joe Gibbs Racing team and gave Hamlin a shot 14 years ago. Many know about Gibbs for his accomplishments in the NFL for being a part of the Washington Redskins team and bringing home one of their Super Bowl victories. On race day, Hamlin dedicated his victory to Gibbs, who passed away in January due to a neurological disease. He died at age of 49. Gibbs wore the No. 11 jersey when he played for the Washington Redskins, and on lap 11 all of NASCAR celebrated his legacy.

For the rest of the team that was not enough. In fact, JGR took home a 1-2-3 finish as Kyle Busch and Erik Jones completed the podium. In fourth place was Joey Logano who, despite missing the podium, took a moment to admire what had occurred, “I’m not a Gibbs driver but for what J.D. has done for my career is the reason why I’m sitting here today,” Logano said. “As bad as I want to win it, it is pretty cool to think that the first race after his passing, to see those guys one, two, three, it just says he’s up there watching and maybe gave [those] guys a little extra boost there at the end.”

Wherever Gibbs is now, we hope he is smiling as big as us racecar fans, and not just for him, but for the entire race. After a mediocre speed week of non-confrontational and often times boring races people were not sure how much fun this year’s Daytona 500 would be. Well, for the 101,000 fans that showed up in the grandstands, almost all 101,000 waited until the race was over to leave. Fortunately for us the racing was intense, action packed and competitive.

The race featured a 21-car crash, five yellow flags, and two red in the last 20 laps, taking over 40 minutes to get through the home stretch. “The Big One” happened with 10 laps to go and took out a majority of the front pack. It started with Paul Menard making an aggressive move trying to push Matt DiBenedetto who had led 49 laps, a field high, and ended up turning DiBenedetto upwards into the wall, collecting the rest of the field with him. Menard took blame for the wreck despite most of the racers claiming that he did nothing wrong. In the end, that’s Daytona.

After the wreck, Hamlin and Busch were on front row and battled it out until the last restart. Hamlin received a big push from Michael McDowell, and he blocked the rest of the way. Logano was upset with McDowell who did not work with him in the last laps. McDowell stated that Logano does not help pay his bills, and he won’t help the 22 win the 500. In the end I do not think it would have mattered since Hamlin was unbeatable.

This ending surprised many analysts, as most of the fans believed a Ford would win the race. Over the offseason, Ford rebranded and remodeled its engines for the Monster Energy Cup Series. They changed their engines from the Ford Fusion model to the Ford Mustang model. McDowell led the cars after the last practice as the fastest car in the field. The Ford teams thought they would work together with their new model in hopes to get their new model into victory lane.

Ford did not get their way and must wait at least another week to see their precious Mustang stained with champagne and confetti in celebration of a win. Ford is attempting to take the momentum with them after the end of the 2018 season where they won the drivers’ championship and manufactures championship with 19 wins. Joey Logano drove his Ford Fusion into victory lane after winning the Monster Energy Series championship last year.

This is just the first race of the season. Every race win, leads to a playoff spot at the end of the year and now that Hamlin has one, the rest of the field is in a hurry to catch up. They will get their chance on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.