“Stay on the bottom, stay in line, and they can’t pass us.”
For 199 laps, Darrell Waltrip’s observation of the 2016 Daytona 500 was dead on. Then, it became dead wrong. With Matt Kenseth leading Martin Truex Jr. on the bottom, Denny Hamlin jumped to the outside with some rarely seen momentum in that lane. Kenseth moved up to block, overshot just as Hamlin cut to his inside to leave the No. 20 wiggling high and dry. Moving beside Truex the pair fought it out to the line, with Hamlin taking his first Great American Race by about four inches, the closest finish in the history of the classic.
For 199 laps, it was the inside lane and only the inside that mattered. Nothing moved on top. Until Hamlin’s maneuver, nothing did. In claiming the prize, the most dominant car of the day got back to the front where he had led for 95 laps though he needed to finish it off the hard way. Well, hard for everyone else, but it looked pretty darn easy for the now 27-race winner.
Racing at Daytona is usually exciting, even when it becomes a single lane contest for the most part. Twenty-year-old Chase Elliott led a couple from the pole, but later his car drifted away from him to leave it wrecked in the infield. Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked strong for the next dozen, and while he was coming back with 30 laps to run, his own snapped from beneath him and found an inside wall. Other than that, Hamlin, Kenseth, and Truex were the only names worth remembering.
Among the milestones, the worst Charter finish was that of Chris Buescher in 39th after his crash with Matt DiBenedetto near the mid-point on Sunday. The best non-Charter was 15th, recorded by Michael McDowell in the No. 59 of Leavine Family Racing. Danica Patrick is usually the dividing line between the good and the ugly, so the car finishing just ahead of her at Daytona was Greg Biffle in 34th. The pair had a meeting over disputed real estate and neither came away well from that. Right behind her was Junior in 36th.
There are times when cars can go from the front to near the back and within a few laps they are back racing up front again. That was not this race. Unless you could get back using the checkers method, by jumping over the opposition, it took some time to make up lost ground. Unlike some, this was not a case of follow the leader, but rather one where the leaders ran on the inside and those on the outside just sat there frustrated going nowhere. That is, until the final lap.
Some claim that is was a snore fest. I disagree as pack racing is never boring. When you drive that close and that fast, with only the first handful of cars not within a racing buddy in tight beside them, things can happen and not all of them good. It became obvious that the leader was going to likely be our eventual winner. Obvious to everyone, except for Denny Hamlin, that is.