Denny Hamlin’s chances to win the 2016 Daytona 500 were shot, and he was responsible. As he led the field down pit road for a green-flag stop with 45 laps to go, all he had to do was make sure his tires made it into the pit box unscathed.
Welcome to Split Second, where we ask racers to recall a split-second moment that's seared into their brain—the perfect pass, the slow-motion movie of their own worst crash, the near miss that scared them straight, or anything else—and what gives the memory staying power. In this edition, we spoke to Denny Hamlin, who recalled coming off of turn four to win the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.
“On the last pit stop, [my crew] said: ‘Don’t slide your tires. We’re going to take two,’” Hamlin told Road & Track. “I said, ‘I slid them.’
“Immediately, the crew chief says: ‘Take four, take four.’”
It was a costly mistake. Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and recently started his own NASCAR Cup Series team with Michael Jordan, led more laps than anyone that day. But sliding his tires and having to replace all four—not just two, like many cars around him—meant he’d slowed himself and his crew down by a few seconds.
In NASCAR, a few seconds is an eternity. Hamlin rejoined the field in seventh place.
“I was like, ‘Well, I just pissed this race away,’” Hamlin said. “‘This is where I’m going to finish.’”
It’s an odd thing to think with more than 100 miles to go, but Hamlin had good reason.
At Daytona International Speedway, cars compete in a large, aerodynamic pack, all impacting one another with a sometimes disastrous ripple effect. That spurs drafting alliances, often within teams and manufacturers. Hamlin and his four allied Toyota drivers—Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards—were the cars to beat that weekend, but their strategy required staying nose-to-tail in a straight drafting line ahead of the main pack.
“In practice, I noticed our times were faster than the pack,” Hamlin said. “I’m like, ‘Well, if we stay in a line, it doesn’t matter what the pack does. How are they going to pass us? It’s impossible.’ So we each just committed to: whoever was in front, second pushes; third pushes second; and so forth.
“We said we weren’t going to pass each other until the last lap. If I was out front, I knew I could defend the lead for a lap and probably win.”
But Hamlin wasn’t out front anymore.
The Toyotas rode in a tight pack for most of the rest of the race, with Hamlin climbing from seventh to fourth and Kenseth leading a long drafting line on the inside of the track. An equally long line of cars rode around the outside, consistently a few car lengths back.
“This is hard when you sit in the position those cars on the bottom are sitting in,” commentator Darrell Waltrip said with eight laps to go, as Kenseth, Truex, and Busch still led Hamlin. “Cars on the outside keep driving up there and falling back. It’s tempting to go up there with them, but like Hamlin said: You just can’t take that chance.”
Hamlin also wasn’t allowed to yet.
“You know what,” Waltrip said with two laps to go. “I’m watching Hamlin. I just think he might be the one guy that tries to spoil this party. He keeps looking to the outside of Kyle Busch. He might be saying, ‘Kyle, if you go, I’ll go with you.’”
“When I go back and watch, the commentators were all over it,” Hamlin told R&T. “I remember Jeff Gordon saying, like, ‘Denny’s not going to be okay with just riding here.’
“I wasn’t, but I also wanted to stay true to what we planned. I can’t just be selfish right now. I’m the one who screwed up and gave up the lead on pit road.”
Even if Hamlin wanted to break away from his teammates, his hopes were slim. The inside line where the Toyotas rode was strong as ever, while the outside one lagged so far back that its leader—Ford driver Kevin Harvick—hovered around fifth at best.
As the white flag signaled the final lap, Hamlin whipped in front of the outside line. Then he dipped back down.
“Can’t do it,” Waltrip said on the broadcast.
“He just doesn’t have enough of a push,” Gordon responded. “But he’s trying.”
“The outside line actually started to form up pretty good,” Hamlin told R&T. “Coming to the white, I kept leaning toward the top. I’m like, ‘If I go up there, I take a little bit of momentum away from the Toyotas, but that puts me at the front of the top line. Now Toyota controls both lines: the top and the bottom.’
“I kept trying to dip up there to see whether I was going to get some momentum. Then finally, the last lap, I was just like: ‘If I fall back, it’s fine. But I need to go try to get a win for myself at this point.’”
In the first turn on the final lap, Hamlin went to the top and stayed there. Kenseth, Truex, and Busch were glued to the bottom, Hamlin still trailing all three.
“I just don’t think he can do it from the outside,” Waltrip said.
“I moved up and I got a big push from Harvick,” Hamlin told R&T. “I just remember going down the backstretch, side-drafting one car and passing, side-drafting another—just really dragging their cars down, car by car—and the next thing you know, I couldn’t believe it, but Matt [Kenseth] tried to pull a block.”
Kenseth’s block came as they drove through the third turn for the final time, once Hamlin had side-drafted his way into second place. It failed. Hamlin ducked underneath Kenseth and left him out of both drafting lines, the right rear of his car tapping the outside wall.
Kenseth sank back as two new leaders emerged: Hamlin on top and Truex on the bottom. They were nose-and-nose in turn four, Hamlin just slightly ahead. But that wasn’t where he wanted to be.
“We practice side drafting all the time,” Hamlin said. “So you kind of know: ‘Okay, if I’m this much ahead off turn four, I’m going to be this much behind by the time we get to the start-finish line because of how the side draft works.’
“I’ll never forget noticing I was a little bit ahead, and immediately kind of checking up—or slowing down—to let [Truex] get ahead, so then I would be able to slingshot right at the line to be ahead at the right time.”
Hamlin and Truex raced to the checkered flag side by side, bouncing off of each other like tubes on a wind chime. They crossed the line so close together, a winner couldn’t be determined with the naked eye.
“Unbelievable!” Gordon yelled on the broadcast. “I think it was Denny Hamlin?”
It was—and it would become the closest finish in Daytona 500 history, with Truex 0.011 seconds back. But much like everyone else, Hamlin didn’t know he’d won right away.
“At Daytona, when there’s a new leader, their number flashes on the scoreboard,” Hamlin said. “When we cross the start-finish line, you’ve got about two seconds that you can see the scoring pylon before you head off into turn one. Kenseth was the leader, and he got shuffled back, so I knew the 78 or the 11 [would flash].
“I crossed the line and I looked at the pylon, but when I went by, it was black. It was on the off part of the flash, so I didn’t see our number. I didn’t know we had won until I heard people screaming on the radio.”
Four years later, Hamlin won the Daytona 500 in another photo finish—this time by 0.014 seconds over Ryan Blaney, becoming the second-closest finish in the race’s history. He told R&T that for this story, he “was kind of torn” about whether he wanted to relive that one or the one from 2016.
Ultimately, his decision came down to one thing.
“I never really think about winning until it gets crunch time,” Hamlin said. “But I was not feeling good [in 2016], because I knew nobody was going to get out of line. I just thought I blew it by making a little silly mistake coming to pit road.
“To come from where we were, it just made an incredible last lap. That was the greatest 40 seconds I feel like I’ve ever driven.”
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