Jim France told ’em to race, and NASCAR’s next generation didn’t disappoint.
The Daytona 500 packed an unforeseen punch that, if nothing else, entertained Sunday’s sun-drenched, sold-out crowd at the famed “World Center of Racing.” There were a ton of wrecks, especially during the final 20 laps of regulation, which Kyle Busch described as the portion of the race in which “brains come unglued.”
The crashes led to nearly 40 minutes of stoppage for cleanup — breaks so long race-winner Denny Hamlin claimed that he twice fell asleep in his Toyota.
Hamlin led a clean sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing, which went 1-2-3 in an overtime finish that honored team co-founder J.D. Gibbs following his death last month following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.
It was an emotional weekend at Daytona International Speedway for Joe Gibbs, who leaned on his eldest son to run their NASCAR operation while he coached the Washington Redskins. J.D. Gibbs was a driver, a tire changer, team executive, talent scout and the guy who discovered a struggling Virginia short track racer who is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner.
Gibbs has three Super Bowl victories and three wins in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, and he ranked Hamlin’s win “the most emotional and biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything.”
These are the moments when NASCAR shines bright, with a feel-good victory that honored a man who loved racing. The shared moment for Gibbs, his family and his race team dwarfed the rest of the 500.
There had been concern the main event might disappoint after three ho-hum exhibition races, but NASCAR got the event it needed to start its rebuilding season.
France, the NASCAR chairman since August, used the prerace driver meeting to urge the full 40-car field to get up on the wheel and race. Drivers had spent the week in single-file lines, and only Hamlin and Chase Elliott had frequented the second, bottom lane, leading into the 500.
“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today,” France said.
F1’s Vettel starts strong
Sebastian Vettel, the runner-up to the Formula One title last season, clocked the fastest time, was the busiest driver with 169 laps and, most importantly, felt right at home behind the wheel of his new Ferrari in Montmelo, Spain at the opening day of the preseason.
Defending champion Lewis Hamilton shared time behind the wheel for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas and ended up with the ninth-fastest time