Bold last-lap move puts Denny Hamlin in Daytona 500 Victory Lane


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Jordan's famous "Air Jordan" emblems adorn Denny Hamlin's driver suit. Not just in one spot. But two, one near each of his shoulders.

The only NASCAR driver branded as an athlete by one of basketball's greats, it designates Hamlin as a racing talent. But to be fair, his friendship with Jordan appeared to have as much to do with it as his 26 career victories leading into the 2016 Daytona 500.

No longer. Hamlin earned status of Jordan greatness Sunday with maybe the most awesome unintentional move in the 58-year history of the Daytona 500 to win NASCAR's biggest event.

He pulled off a stunner, motoring from fourth to first over the final two miles of Daytona International Speedway. In a basketball sense, think of it as at first trying to deflect the ball out of bounds and ending up catching it at half court. Then, without thinking, heaving it toward the bucket. Calling nothing but net.


About the only thing Hamlin didn't do was stick out his tongue as he let his shot go.

"It's, like, storybook," Hamlin said. "You make a pass on the last corner of the last lap of the Daytona 500. That's what makes it so cool."

Winning the Daytona 500 by the closest-ever margin of 0.010 seconds over Martin Truex Jr., the closest finish since NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in 1993, Hamlin swears he had no fantasy of pulling off such a move with a lap to go, that he just tried to block Kevin Harvick by moving to the outside lane to help his Toyota brethren earn the win. That might sound scripted and insincere, but no way someone -- even someone as charmingly cocky as the 35-year-old Hamlin -- could even think of pulling off such a move.

"He [Harvick] just kept pushing and hitting the back of my back bumper," Hamlin said. "I kept lunging more and more forward.  Next thing you know, I've got a huge run.  I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do with this?' "

The outside line had not worked all day, but Hamlin relinquished fourth to slide up in front of Harvick on the outside line in Turn 1 of the final lap. He made the move so Harvick didn't get by the Toyotas that were in front of Hamlin -- his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth in the lead with Furniture Row's  Martin Truex Jr. in second and JGR's Kyle Busch in third.

Kenseth left the most powerful lane to block -- and get a push -- from Hamlin. Instead, Hamlin enjoyed such momentum, he ducked to the middle lane, and as Kenseth tried to crowd him, they made contact. Kenseth got the worse end of the deal while Hamlin never lost momentum, pinching Truex coming to the finish line. They crossed the finish line in a blur, with Hamlin's No. 11 car ahead by about four inches.

"I didn't know we had won," Hamlin said. "I knew it was close. I saw the pylon change and blink at the last second for the 11. I heard on the radio people were all crazy, excited. I assumed we won when that happened.

"If not, I was going to be pissed.  You cannot pump fake someone for a Daytona 500 victory.  That would have been bad."

As Hamlin and Truex delivered the photo finish, the guy who had his day pump-faked, Kenseth, joked he "was back in Turn 3," finally coming across the line in 14th.

"It's really frustrating," Kenseth said. "I'm really disappointed. I feel like I let my team down."

As he talked, Kenseth had to wonder, how in the world did he lose this race? How did he lose a sure third Daytona 500 win to Hamlin, who had never won it before (although he did, as a grade schooler, write an essay saying his wish was to win the Daytona 500)?

With a million things going through his mind of what he could have done different, and thinking he should have stayed on the inside lane, Kenseth harbored no venom toward his teammate.

"Absolutely -- you try to win the Daytona 500," Kenseth said. "I tried to get in front of him and block him. ... I looked to the outside, I was like, I'd get in front of him and get the momentum and I didn't feel the momentum. He got there in my left rear and got me loose. He was doing what he needed to do to win and it obviously worked out for him. It just didn't quite work out for us."

Surprisingly, if anyone would make such a bold move, it should have been Busch, riding in third and having a clear moment to have darted in front of Hamlin. But Busch hesitated for a split second. And that meant settling for sticking on the inside and following Truex across the finish line in third.

"Once Denny jumped up, he just got such a huge boost from the 4 [of Harvick]," Busch said. "Once he did it, I swore I thought about doing it. Once I thought about doing it and didn't do it, it was too late. That was it.

"You can't think that long and not make the move at the same time. So I missed my opportunity. But, you know, that's racing. That's how it goes."

Both Kenseth and Busch could look at the finish and feel they were beaten while making a mistake on the final lap. Ironically, Hamlin made a mistake that helped him. On his pit stop with 44 laps remaining, Hamlin slid into his pit, forcing the team to change all four tires instead of two, dropping him to seventh.

But thanks to the fresh left-side tires, Hamlin could make that move to get past Kenseth and have enough grip to keep the momentum to beat Truex in the sprint to the finish line.

"I'm just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career -- I suppose, the rest of my life," Truex said. "I remember when it happened to Mark Martin [in 2007 finishing second]. Poor guy, been so close here so many times. They still show the highlight.

"The picture of that race is in the tunnel when you come in in Turn 1. I have a feeling I'm going to have to see that same thing for a long time."

Hamlin won't mind seeing it. He had to watch the highlights after the race just to figure out how he did it, how he pulled off the first Daytona 500 win for Joe Gibbs Racing in 23 years and the first for Toyota, which enters its 10th year of the sport.

Despite the fluky way he won, few will consider Hamln's victory at Daytona a fluke. Over his 11-year career, Hamlin had won two Daytona 500 qualifying races and three of the exhibition Sprint Unlimiteds, including the one last Saturday.

He entered the race as one of the favorites, but it appeared he had taken a car that had led 94 laps and choked on the final pit stop in un-Jordan-like fashion. It appeared he would remain a driver whose biggest victories were a Southern 500 and a Sprint All-Star win.

"I blew it," Hamlin said. "I got cocky. ... I come in here and blow it and screw my tires up on the last stop that actually counts."

Instead, Hamlin will celebrate. He probably already has a Daytona 500 champion logo being painted on his basketball court at home. Jordan could probably supply some blue paint -- the 2016 Daytona 500 logo coincidentally has a blue with an uncanny resemblance to the blue of Jordan's Hornets -- to support one of his athletes, not to mention a guy who has top-of-the-line Hornets sideline season tickets.

"Ultimately you're defined by the big moments," Hamlin said. "That's why this one is so big for us, and me in particular, is that you don't like to be the guy that wins races but not the big ones."