Game Changer: Daytona Edition

dis_nscs_checkered_2_022116As the white flag flew over the field in Sunday’s Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin sat fourth, seemingly out of contention for the victory.

He proved to have the most dominant car in the field, leading 95 laps and remaining up front throughout the event. However, fate seemed out of his hands as the laps counted down. As he trailed his teammates and Martin Truex Jr. in the Toyota train at the front of the field, there seemed to be no moves to make.

The outside lane struggled to keep up with the inside throughout the race. This made it difficult for any driver to develop a run and challenge the leaders unless the two lines remained close following a restart.

The final green flag run lasted 12 laps and the bottom line proved to be the powerhouse once again. On the final lap, Hamlin would need help to move from fourth to the lead on the outside. As a result of the struggles facing the high line throughout the race, it didn’t seem likely.

However, a late surge from the outside lane came when the white flag was displayed. Kevin Harvick had momentum heading into Turn 1 for the final time, and Hamlin went high. This move of desperation proved to be the game changing moment of the race as for the first time in the event, the momentum shifted to the high line.

Hamlin received a strong push from Harvick down the backstretch as he advanced from fourth to battling for second in Turn 3. Now as he dueled with Martin Truex Jr., leader Matt Kenseth began to play defense as he eyed a third Daytona 500 victory.

He knew the No. 11 FedEx Toyota was coming with a head of steam and made the decision to block his teammate rather than hold his line. As Hamlin saw the bright yellow No. 20 Dollar General Toyota sliding up in front of him, he made the split second decision to jump down to the middle lane while Kenseth got loose up high. This provided another shot of momentum for Hamlin as he exited Turn 4 side-by-side with Truex Jr.

The two Toyota’s bounced off each other as they set their sights on the finish line and were locked in a dead heat. They crossed the line nearly simultaneously in a finish too close to call.

Seconds later, Hamlin was declared the winner by 0.010 seconds in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history. His move defied what has become typical with this style of pack racing as he not only went from fourth to first on the final lap, but won in a photo finish.

Since the tandem style of drafting was phased out after 2011, the key to victory has been leading late. Very rarely have drivers made last lap passes for the victory over the last five years. When Hamlin surged from fourth to the lead, it was quite an impressive feat.

In addition, photo finishes in Daytona and Talladega have been a rarity as of late. This has resulted from the leader often having command of the field off the final turn. However, Sunday’s finish went against what we have seen in recent years and led to the thrilling outcome.

The final lap of the Daytona 500 will forever be linked to Hamlin’s name as he made the right moves and scored a signature win. Careers are defined by performances similar to what Hamlin accomplished on Sunday. While he continues to search for NASCAR’s ultimate prize of the championship, he knocked another marquee victory off his list in dramatic fashion on the sport’s grandest stage.

By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason

 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

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