DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin's comeback continues to go smashingly.
Determined to re-establish himself as a perennial championship contender after breaking vertebrae in his back, missing four races and the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time as a full-time Sprint Cup driver last year, Hamlin won his second straight trophy in winning a bedlam- and wreckage-filled Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Hamlin, who won the season-ending Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, got the push-off into Speedweeks and the 2014 season he had obsessed over the entire offseason. He can only hope the momentum is as lasting as in 2006, when he followed a surprising Unlimited win as a rookie to win two races and finish third in the driver standings.
Granted, a series of wrecks, including a nine-car melee in the second of three race segments, eliminated much of his competition, but Hamlin sounded confident and rejuvenated over the team radio as he crossed the start/finish line in the No. 11 Toyota.
"Any questions?" he growled.
With the starting lineup and race structure determined by fan vote, Hamlin started on the simulated pole after posting the best practice speed, and led at every juncture: 30, 55 and the final 75-lap distance. He assumed his last lead with two laps remaining, swooping low past Keselowski and bearing off without the aid of a draft partner. His margin of victory was .197 seconds.
Whether the Unlimited yielded much intelligence for the Daytona 500 remains to be seen. Closing rates were rapid, side-drafting was enhanced and blocking was a necessity in a new package crafted to eliminate tandem draft. And wrecking. Wrecking was commonplace, reducing the field from 18 at the start to eight by the finish. Terry Labonte parked after one lap.
"The field was so small, I wouldn't take anything from the second half of the race and say you would see it in the 500," Keselowski said.
Jimmie Johnson failed to finish the race for the third straight year when he appeared to lose control of the No. 48 Chevrolet in a traffic with one lap left in the first segment. Trying to set up a pass of Hamlin coming off Turn 4, the 2005 Unlimited winner said he "got light" and slid hard into the a retaining wall near pit road before coming to a mangled halt on the infield grass.
Much of the field soon followed. Just three laps into the second segment, Matt Kenseth veered sharply left into the front of Joey Logano as he tried to avoid the slowing car of leader Keselowski, precipitating a nine-car wreck that knocked seven from the field, including the entire four-car Stewart-Haas Racing contingent. Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet was mashed between two of them -- Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch -- and limped off the track until the sparking mass of metal came to rest.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wedged Busch in the air along the wall until breaking free, accelerating and, after looking down -- according to video on an in-car camera -- walloping Danica Patrick, who had initially evaded the accident on the apron but squirted back onto the track after driving onto the grass.