Because it almost never works out, most NASCAR drivers don’t want to be the leader going into the final lap in a race at Daytona International Speedway. But Denny Hamlin led the field to the green flag in a two-lap overtime shootout in Sunday’s Daytona 500 and made it work, playing the ultimate game of defense to win the race.
In a race that saved pretty much all of its crashes for the last 10 laps, Hamlin and his teammate Kyle Busch swapped back and forth between the top spot in the final restarts at Daytona. Hamlin had the lead in what turned out to be the final restart, coming to the green flag for overtime with Busch, Joey Logano and Michael McDowell lined up behind him.
That’s not really the best place to be at Daytona, though, since pack racing and drafting at the 2.5-mile track often end in either a last-lap crash, pass or both. That usually results in anyone on the lead lap having a chance to cross the line first, and there were 14 cars left on that lead lap when overtime began.
But Hamlin, who won the 2016 Daytona 500 with a photo finish over his quasi-teammate at the time, Martin Truex Jr., wasn’t going to be a casualty of losing the lead at the end of the 500. He spent the last two laps blocking anyone who got near him, taking the checkers with no one even close enough to challenge:
Two red flags led up to the overtime finish, with a massive crash that collected half of the field starting it all. Once the red flag from that one ended, the race restarted with six laps to go and Busch leading Hamlin, but didn’t make it one of those laps without another crash.
Contact between Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick triggered the caution on that lap, and the race picked back up with two laps to go. The field failed to make it around once again, with a spin by Clint Bowyer leading to another red flag for oil cleanup.
In other words, the end of the Daytona 500 was about like the end of a close basketball game: start, stop, start, stop, start, stop.
Hamlin had the lead for what became the final restart, taking the green with Busch in second once the race resumed for overtime—the sitting-duck position at Daytona. But Hamlin did the opposite of sit, skating up and down the track to block the cars behind him until it was all over. Hamlin led a top-three finish for Joe Gibbs Racing, with teammates Busch and Erik Jones finishing behind him.
Now is about the time when someone, somewhere, is lecturing everyone within earshot about how defense is the best offense. But because that was a long end to the race, we’ll save you the cliché and further exhaustion.