By Jenna Fryer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.: 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.
It set up a final 20-lap sprint to the finish with 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 for his second career win in the Speedweeks opener. He also won the event as a rookie in 2006.
“That was survival of the fittest for sure,” Hamlin said. “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.”
A 75-lap race split over three segments, this version 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 had difficulty seeing in front of him because his hood was badly crumpled when he hit the back of Kurt Busch.