Column By: JOHN DOUGLAS / RPW – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Denny Hamlin took Joe Gibbs to victory lane in the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career on Sunday evening. Though this is the second victory for Hamlin in the “Great American Race,” the emotions surrounding this win make it extra special.
It was also a special night for a modified racer out of Connecticut as Ryan Preece, a rookie in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet, finished an impressive eighth. His race was not by any means uneventful,
with at least two masterful maneuvers to miss multi-car incidents.
The Joe Gibbs No. 11 had a special place in both Hamlin an Gibbs’ hearts. J.D. Gibbs, the late son of the former Redskins coach and legendary NASCAR owner was the one who found Hamlin. Hamlin’s team runs the No. 11 because it was J.D.’s high school football number and the team ran J.D.’s name in place of Hamlin’s on the car this week in tribute to the man who made their careers possible.
“I’d Just like to retrace for a minute what happened tonight.” Joe Gibbs said. “It’s the most emotional and biggest win I’ve ever had in my life in anything. J.D. on our race team was the guy who ran day to day operations for 27 years. He invested his occupational life in our race team and as a part of that he went out to purchase some Late Model stuff from Denny and struck up a relationship with Denny, put him in a test in a truck, put him in a Xfinity car at Darlington and finally said we need to sign this guy…”
“J.D.’s favorite number was eleven when he raced, that’s the one he had.” Gibbs continued. “Denny’s number is eleven. Denny put J.D. on the door post of that car and to have that take place… Everything that took place tonight, everybody knows we’ve been to Daytona 27 times. We had won twice before. So you know, you’re thinking about things and I guess everybody could say ‘Well that just happened.’ I don’t believe that just happened. I honestly believe it was, you know, I think the Lord looked down on us and I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional. I called home to Pat and I called sponsors who were emotional too. It was just an unbelievable night, an unbelievable crowd. The whole thing was just a special memory for me and it’s one I’ll never forget. It was the most important night of my occupational life.”
Hamlin’s second victory in the Daytona 500 is one he intends to savor just a bit more than the first. The opportunity to take it all in was something he missed out on in his first triumph of ‘The Great American Race.’
“I’m taking this one in a little bit more. I was just so, you know. Everything was so crazy at the end of the 2016 race with the final lap and how it all played out. I just couldn’t believe anything that happened. I actually was n awe the whole time. This one actually, through the red flags and every thing, I was kinda taking everything in. I fell asleep twice under a couple of the red flags because I was just relaxed. I knew what I needed to do and I wasn’t going to venture off from that.”
Also in contention for the win at the end of the Daytona 500 was Ryan Preece. The rookie driver of the JTG Daugherty Raicng No. 47 hadn’t been looked at as a serious contender for the win in his first ever Daytona 500 start, however that all changed with a pair of ‘Big Ones.’
The nerves ran high in the pit box under the final red flag as team members stared at the big screen behind pit road wondering, waiting, hoping and maybe even saying a few prayers. Though Preece’s machine had minor nose damage, the Connecticut native shined as he drove to an impressive eighth place finish. Good enough to become the highest finishing rookie of the race and earn him his first career top 10 in just his sixth Cup Series star overall, including five races in 2015.
During the final red flag period, fans in the stands could be heard chanting “Let’s Go Ryan!” A very rare occurrence for any rookie on the Cup Series level.
It’s what he did along the way that gained the support of those fans. Running mid-pack for a good portion of the race, Preece found himself in harms way more times than he’d like to count. The Connecticut modified racer turned NASCAR star proved his prowess behind the wheel, missing two ‘Big Ones’ along the way by the skin of his teeth.
The first, which involved most of the contending cars, saw Preece shoot the gap on at least 7 spinning cars. His only damage coming from touching the rear bumper of the car ahead, Chase Elliott. Which only took a couple pieces of Bare-Bond to mend.
Maneuvering his vehicle as if it were an early 90’s Hollywood movie, Preece narrowly avoided crash damage. Doing so twice in under ten laps made people a believer. It was no fluke, he just wheeled it. To an eighth place finish that the entirety of the short track and specifically the Northeastern Modified fans can be supremely proud of.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has left Daytona and now the season truly begins at Atlanta in a week’s time. Where the teams, drivers and fans will get their first taste of the new 2019 competition package. One that hopes to bring parity, ramp up the competition and create excitement that will carry the sport into a new era. One that Joe Gibbs Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing hope to be a big part of.