DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season begins to unfold, “first” is the watchword for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Denny Hamlin was first in last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway. Hamlin and JGR teammate Matt Kenseth took first in the two Budweiser Duel at Daytona 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday night. JGR is the first organization to win the Unlimited and both Duel races in the same season.
And as JGR attempts Sunday to win its first Daytona 500 since 1993, Hamlin will attempt to complete an unprecedented trifecta, as the first driver to win the Unlimited, a Duel race and the Daytona 500 in the same year.
Should he accomplish that feat, the victory would be the first for Toyota in NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
Based on their performance so far, the Gibbs drivers have to be the oddsmakers’ choice to win the Great American race — and everyone knows it.
“If you’re going to pick a favorite, I would consider them the favorites,” said Jeff Gordon, runner-up in the second Duel won by Hamlin. “They won both races (Thursday). They won the Unlimited. I don’t know if that means anything, but I would say that they’re very quick and very capable of winning this race…
“Along with 42 other guys,” Gordon added with a sly smile.
To Hamlin, winning the Daytona 500 is a matter of holding himself back, as difficult as that may be.
“I think the biggest challenge we’ll have for myself is keeping the reins back for 400 miles, 450 miles,” Hamlin said after the second Duel. “It’s going to be a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you’re still on top and still the best right on Lap 1.
“I think that will be my challenge, keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.”
Other drivers will face more daunting challenges in the 56th running of the Daytona 500. Defending race winner and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson will start from the back of the field in a backup car after destroying the No. 48 Chevrolet on the final lap of the second Duel.
Johnson already had used up his planned Daytona 500 back-up car in the Unlimited. Uncharacteristically, Johnson and his usually well-oiled No. 48 team were responsible for both wrecks.
In the Unlimited, Johnson pulled out to pass Hamlin and lost control of the car in Turn 4, demolishing the vaunted No. 48. In the second Duel, Johnson’s team didn’t get enough gas in the fuel cell to run the final 24 laps of the race.
Johnson slowed dramatically in the final corner, leaving Jamie McMurray no choice but to run into the back of Johnson’s car. The No. 48 turned sideways, slammed into the wall and burst into flames, as eight other cars also were consumed in the chaos.
Clint Bowyer’s Toyota did a full flip and stuck a perfect four-point landing. Martin Truex’s Chevy, scheduled to start on the outside of the front row, crossed the finish line in flames. Fortunately, no drivers were injured in the last-lap accident.
Johnson, Bowyer, McMurray and Truex rolled out backup cars after the wreck, as did Michael Waltrip and David Ragan, who also were wreck victims. This six drivers will drop to the rear of the field for the start of the Daytona 500, as will Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Bobby Labonte, who changed engines after failures in practice last Saturday.
Coors Light pole award winner Austin Dillon, on the other hand, nursed his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to a 18th-place finish in the first Duel (after Kevin Harvick’s post-race penalty), keeping the car out of harm’s way. Barring an issue in practice before the Daytona 500, Dillon’s No. 3 will lead the field to green in the first appearance of that car number in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing since Dale Earnhardt died as a result of injuries sustained in the 2001 Daytona 500.