Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Denny Hamlin survived a major crash involving half of the field and then held off Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch during the closing laps to win Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
Running under the lights and a full moon at Daytona, this year's 75-lap preseason race for the Sprint Cup Series had its share of accidents and bizarre moments, particularly when the pace car caught on fire while on the track just prior to the start of the final 20-lap segment.
A plume of smoke appeared from the back end of the Chevrolet SS pace car. Brett Bodine, the driver of the car, pulled off the track and came to a stop before a fire erupted from the back. Bodine and his fellow NASCAR official Buster Auton quickly exited the vehicle, as track workers extinguished the flames. NASCAR and Chevrolet are investigating the incident.
Hamlin led a race-high 27 laps, including the final two, to win the preseason event at Daytona for the second time. His first victory in it came during his rookie season in 2006. Hamlin concluded the 2013 Sprint Cup season with a win at Homestead.
"The best car won, that's for sure," Hamlin said. "That was survival of the fittest for sure. With three [laps] to go, I was at the tail end of a very small pack, and it was really hard to get runs. But this car was just phenomenal."
Nine of the 18 drivers competing in this race were involved in the big wreck that occurred on the frontstretch on lap 36. Tony Stewart, who made his first start since suffering a broken right leg in an accident during a sprint car race last August, was one of the drivers involved. Stewart climbed out of his car and walked away under his own power. He did not complain of any pain in his leg following the incident.
"I was a little nervous about it, because I knew that I was probably going to hit nose first there, but it doesn't feel bad at all," Stewart said. "I don't have any pain."
Matt Kenseth triggered the crash when he spun after being hit behind from Joey Logano.
"I was easing my way down there and had no idea that Joey was that close to me, and our cars got hooked together," Kenseth said. "I feel bad all of those cars got wrecked. That's not the way you want to start a season."
The pileup also claimed Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Danica Patrick was not initially caught up in the wreck, but Patrick lost control and spun around. When she came to a stop on the track, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., her boyfriend, plowed into the side of her car.
"I'm bummed it got cut short," Patrick said. "I got hit by my boyfriend. What a bummer. But he said his hood was up, and he couldn't see anything. Not the way I wanted it to go at all."
Prior to hitting Patrick, Stenhouse had slammed into the back of Kurt Busch, which damaged his front hood to the point where he could not see in front of him.
"I tried to look over the hood, and then all of the sudden, I hit something really hard," Stenhouse said. "It was obviously her [Patrick], sitting sideways. It just really destroyed her car. I think she would have been alright if I didn't hit her. That was not good."
Hamlin built a sizeable lead over Keselowski and Kyle Busch during the final lap. Keselowski ended up crossing the finish line 0.2 seconds behind Hamlin.
"It was definitely a race of attrition, and we survived, somewhat, to the end," Keselowski said. "Obviously, came up one spot short, which in a race like this is all that matters."
Busch rebounded from a spin after being tapped by Keselowski on lap 60 to finish third. Logano and Kevin Harvick, who won this race for the third time last year, rounded out the top-five.
Just eight drivers finished the race, with Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman crossing the line sixth through eighth, respectively.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was knocked out of the race with 10 laps to go when Ambrose made contact with Earnhardt and put him into the wall.
"I hated that it happened, and I was upset with [Ambrose], but it really wasn't his fault," said Earnhardt, who finished ninth. "He was going to the outside, and I didn't know he was up there."
Jimmie Johnson, who won his sixth Sprint Cup championship this past season, crashed on lap 29 when he lost control and spun coming out of turn four and then smacked the inside retaining wall, ending his night early.
"I was trying to find away by the 11 [Hamlin], and the transition off of four there, the back of the car got light and just kind of did a slow, lazy spin and lost the back of it," Johnson said.
Race fans decided upon a number of competition elements for this race. A majority of the fans voted the segments to be broken down to 30 laps/25 laps/20 laps and the starting lineup to be determined by Friday's practice speeds, giving Hamlin the pole position.