Hamlin wins exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

Denny Hamlin celebrates next to the trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Denny Hamlin celebrates next to the trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Denny Hamlin won a race of attrition Saturday night, beating just seven other cars to the finish of the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.

Only eight cars were running at the end of the 75-lap showcase at Daytona International Speedway on a bizarre night that saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. end girlfriend Danica Patrick’s race and the Chevrolet pace car catch fire.

“When you think you’ve seen it all, then you see that. It’s never-ending,” second-place finisher Brad Keselowski said about the pace car fire. “I thought it was race car. Someone said it was the pace car, and I couldn’t help but start laughing.”

It was Hamlin who got the last laugh, winning the opening race of Speedweeks for the second time in his career.

The victory proved that Hamlin has finally fully recovered from the fractured vertebra that cost him five races last season and caused him to struggle for months after his return. But he closed out the year with a victory — his only win of 2013 — in the season finale, and made that momentum last over the offseason.

“The best car won, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’re two in a row now.”

The third and final segment was a 20-lap sprint to the finish, and it had the second fewest number of drivers taking the checkered flag in event history. Only seven drivers finished the 1981 race.

Hamlin charged to the front right before he took the white flag by diving to the inside and sailing past the few cars on the track. He then drove away in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

“That was survival of the fittest for sure,” said Hamlin, also the winner as a rookie in 2006.  “With three to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack. It’s really hard to get runs, but this car was phenomenal. You saw it those last couple of laps.”

This year’s race had a heavy fan involvement as sponsor Sprint allowed fans to vote for various aspects of the race. Among them was the starting order, how the segments were split and how the cars lined up in the final segment.

But it was mostly for naught as half the 18-car field was knocked out six laps into the second segment when Matt Kenseth cut across the front of Joey Logano. It triggered a nine-car accident on the frontstretch — including Stenhouse’s dramatic late hit into the side of Patrick’s car.

“I got hit by my boyfriend. What a bummer,” Patrick said.

Stenhouse took blame for ending Patrick’s race. He had difficulty seeing in front of him because his hood was badly crumpled when he hit the back of Kurt Busch.

“I just drilled her,” Stenhouse said. “I didn’t see anything from the time it started to the time it ended. Talking to Danica, I drilled her when she was pretty much sitting still. I couldn’t see, couldn’t turn.”

The accident left debris and mangled sheet metal all over the frontstretch and brought the race to a stop for just over 11 minutes. It ended the night for Tony Stewart, who was racing for the first time since he broke his right leg in an August sprint car crash, and teammates Patrick and Kurt Busch. Kevin Harvick, driving the fourth Stewart-Haas Racing entry in the field, seemed to have a Chevrolet capable of contending for the win but suffered serious damage that dropped him well off the pace.

Stewart said he felt physically fine after the hard hit, which left his car turned nose-first into the wall. Jeff Gordon’s car was stuck behind Stewart’s with its rear wheels raised by the front of Busch’s car.

“I was a little nervous … but it doesn’t feel bad at all,” Stewart said. “I don’t have any pain. We’ll see when the adrenaline wears off. But so far, everything feels really good. I’m pretty happy with it.”

Kenseth, whose changing of lanes triggered the accident, said he had no idea Logano was on his inside when he moved.

“Honestly, I had no idea anybody was inside of me,” Kenseth said. “I feel bad all of those cars got wrecked.”

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