By the time the third and final segment of the Sprint Unlimited came to an end there were just eight cars from the 18 strong starting field left on track, and all but two of them were carrying some sort of damage or had battled mechanical issues during NASCAR’s curtain raising exhibition race.
However, in a race as close as the 75 event at Daytona International Speedway it is mere coincidence that the two drivers in ‘healthy’ cars finished first and second, Denny Hamlin easing to a second victory in the race. Though most of the race proved the ability of drivers to pull out from the draft to make a pass Hamlin was able to build a big enough cushion over the chasing pack led by Brad Keselowski to complete the final 2.5 mile unchallenged as Keselowski fought to hold back the twin lines of drivers behind him to keep second place.
Hamlin had started the race from pole position – a fan vote electing for a starting order based on final practice speeds – but only led the opening lap of the race before Jamie McMurray moved past having started on the outside of the front row.
However, McMurray was also the first driver in the race to find trouble beneath the Daytona lights as he picked up debris on the radiator of the #1 car that – after he was unable to dislodge it after dropping back into the draft – forced him to make a pitstop, steam erupting geyser-like from the overheating engine.
The format of the race – split into three segments, 30, 25 and 20 laps respectively – would have put McMurray back on the lead lap, but a single car spin exiting turn four by Jimmie Johnson brought the opening segment to an end a few second early, as well as ending the defending series champions’ chances of starting a new year with a win. He would be followed into the garages by seven more drivers shortly after the beginning of the second part of the race when contact between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano triggered a crash that left nearly half the entry with damage.
With Hamilin and Keselowski jockeying for position at the head of the draft Kenseth tried to move into the low line, aiming to help push his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin clear into the lead. However, the gap he intended to fill was partly occupied by Logano. The resulting contact left Kenseth sideways on the track in front of Tony Stewart who wadded up against the outside wall with Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. Carl Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick were also taken out I the accident, Patrick hit by an unsighted Stenhouse after she had got past the accident.
Kevin Harvick, who like Kurt Busch has moved to Stewart-Haas for the new season, also accrued damage to his car in the accident, the new team behind the #4 car spending the remainder or the second segment and much of the final segment repairing the car to put Harvick back in contention for an unlikely win.
The other man in the race starting 2014 with a new team had moved in the opposite direction to Harvick over the off-season, Ryan Newman moving for SHR’s #39 to Richard Childress Racing’s #31. Though he too was in the race to the checkered flag a victory for he would have been similarly unlikely, having lost the power steering on the car before the multi-car pile-up. The eleven minute red flag that resulted arguably kept Newman in the hunt. Unlike ‘normal’ red flags teams were allowed to repair cars in the delay, giving the team time to repair the fault on the CAT sponsored Chevrolet.
In the final 20 laps the race proved it still had more damage to deal out.
Perhaps it was sign of what kind of evening the race had stumbled upon when even the pace car was forced out of the race, the driver and observer having to bail out on the back straight to escape the smoke as flames started to lick the rear of the race. Once a new pace car sent the remaining drivers on their way for the final segment it was quickly clear that a change of pace car had no effect on the racing.
Contact with Keselowski sent Kyle Busch spinning to the inside of turns three and four. In a scene almost identical to the 2012 version of the race Busch was able to save the car from a seemingly impossible angle, though unlike in race he won two years ago a trip through the grass damaged the splitter on the #18. The damage, and the time take to repair it left him the better part of half a lap adrift, a deficit expunged when Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to move up ahead of Marcos Ambrose.
Earnhardt Jr. was pitched into the outside wall, putting him out of the race, Ambrose joined the walking wounded on track, his car patched up under the resulting caution to keep him in with a chance of victory, a chance that seemed to be growing early in the five laps of racing that remained after the caution as he moved forward before falling as the remaining Joe Gibbs drivers – Hamlin and Busch – and the Penske pair of Keselowski and Busch would fight for the win.
Hamlin ducked out from behind Busch on the back straight on the penultimate lap, the pair and Keselowski briefly three wide and Hamlin shot ahead, leaving Keselowski to contend with both Logano and Busch as potential rivals for position and potential pushers in the race for the lead at the same time. Stuck between the two options he remained second, Busch third and Logano fourth.