By Jordan McAbee
Another weekend, another Denny Hamlin victory. This time it really counted, though.
The driver of the #11 Toyota continued his dominating ways at Daytona International Speedway by leading 95 of the 200 total laps in Sunday’s 2016 Great American race, and he ended up leading the one that mattered the most by the tiniest of margins; unofficial NASACAR records had Hamlin edging Martin Truex, Jr. by a mere 0.011 seconds.
After the Sprint Unlimited last weekend, we debated whether or not Denny Hamlin was the new king of the restrictor plate tracks–or at least Daytona. The main argument that kept anyone from crowning Hamlin, however, was the fact that he had never won a points-paying race at the track.
Cross that off of the bucket list.
With his victory on Sunday, Denny Hamlin–who was listed at 12-to-1 odds earlier in the week–has already guaranteed his spot in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Last year, it was Joey Logano–who went on to be favored by many as the championship favorite–that secured his playoff birth in NASCAR’s Holy Grail, the Daytona 500.
Toyota Makes a Statement
While Denny Hamlin’s win on Sunday will go down as one of the greatest finishes in Daytona 500 history, it’s important to note that the #11 car wasn’t the only impressive vehicle in the field. In fact, it was the Toyotas that really made a statement on Sunday, as they all combined to lead 158 of the 200 total laps. Additionally, four of the top five finishing positions belonged to drivers in Toyota race cars, with Kevin Harvick’s Chevrolet in 4th being the only exception.
This is already a major improvement for the Toyota camp, one that had difficulty finding speed in the first half of the 2015 season. With NASCAR’s move to the lower downforce package in 2016, however, many expected the Toyotas to benefit the most, especially the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch. And if Sunday’s Great American Race was any indication, we should be seeing a whole lot of JGR in victory lane this year.
Typically wins at restrictor plate races don’t deserve much merit in the NASCAR world (at least as far as overall strength), but that’s not the case with Denny Hamlin. We all know what kind of racing talent he has, and the fact that Hamlin has added a strong plate racing attribute to his resume, it’s hard to not consider him one of the early favorites for the 2016 Sprint Cup championship. He’s paired with a new crew chief this year in Mike Wheeler, and that just might be the change Denny Hamlin needs to take his game to the next level.
Truex Starts Off Strong in New Toyota
The 2015 NASCAR “feel good” story of the year was Martin Truex, Jr., and he almost brought that full circle at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday. If the start/finish line was just 20 feet closer to turn 4, we’d all be talking about Truex as the Daytona 500 champion right now. Alas, he ended up finishing 2nd.
Still, runner-up is a very good sign for this #78 team, which made the move from Chevrolet to Toyota over the offseason. Considering Truex was one of the strongest cars on intermediate tracks in 2015, that move had quite a few people worried about regression–myself included. The 2nd-place finish still has to be frustrating for Martin, though, who’s had his fair share of disappointment in finishes over the years.
However, if Sunday was any indication, the #78 team is doing just fine with the transition, and the car hasn’t seemed to lose any speed. We’ll get a more accurate reading on that latter statement next week, though, when the Sprint Cup Series stops at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Truex ran 6th there last season and has ended up between 3rd and 6th in three of the last four races at that track.