Hamlin wins Daytona 500 after late-race wrecks

Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, Sunday. — AFP

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Denny Hamlin withstood three major late-race wrecks Sunday to win the 61st Daytona 500, an emotional triumph the American dedicated to former team co-owner J.D. Gibbs, who died last month.

Hamlin, who didn’t win a race last season, captured his 33rd career top-level US stock car series victory and his second at Daytona after 2016.

“We just weren’t going to be denied,” Hamlin said. “I’m going to have a terrible hangover tomorrow but I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life.”

Joe Gibbs, who coached the NFL Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles, guided Hamlin’s racing team with J.D. until his son’s death last month at age 49 over issues related to brain function.

The Gibbs team swept the podium in Toyotas, the first time since 1993 a single team owned the top three spots in a Daytona 500.

“What happened here is emotional for all of us,” Joe Gibbs said. “Denny racing like he did right there is just unbelievable.

“Emotionally I’m just shot. What happened here is really unreal.”

It was J.D. Gibbs who brought Hamlin into the team.

“The whole family, they have done so much for me,” Hamlin said. “This one is for J.D. — his legacy lives on.”

The biggest race of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) season produced a dramatic and emotional start to the American stock car campaign for 2019 on the 2.5-mile (4km) Daytona International Speedway oval.

Carnage struck on a restart attempt with 10 laps remaining on a crash near the front that saw 18 cars damaged but no drivers suffering major injuries as the event was red-flagged.

Racing resumed with seven laps to go and Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Hamlin trying to hold off five Ford racers. Another wreck followed with seven cars collected behind the field’s top five as the tension built.

Busch and Hamlin took the green flag side-by-side with two laps remaining with cars lined up behind them. They made 3/4 of a lap before fourth-place Clint Bowyer’s car veered into that of William Byron and half a dozen more cars were collected in the mayhem, requiring another long clean-up delay.

Hamlin and Busch led again as another two-lap restart followed under NASCAR rules with Joey Logano and Michael McDowell in Fords just behind.

Hamlin surged ahead at the final restart and kept the lead to the checkered flag with teammate Busch second and Erik Jones third. — AFP