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Hamlin uses daring move for 1st Daytona 500 victory

| Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, 5:15 p.m.
Denny Hamlin celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016.
Denny Hamlin (11) beats out Martin Truex Jr. (78) at the finish line to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016 at Daytona International Speedway.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin tucked in behind a string of Toyotas, including Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, and made a daring move on the last lap before outdueling Martin Truex Jr. down the front stretch to win the 58th Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Hamlin muscled his way to the front by passing Kenseth as the lead pack came out of Turn 2. Then, he was joined at the front by Truex with a crowd of more than 100,000 rising to its collective feet at Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin, with the No. 11 Toyota leading 94 laps before he surrendered his advantage on a green-flag stop with 44 laps remaining, sprinted to the finish line inches ahead of Truex's No. 78 Toyota to secure the slimmest margin of victory in Daytona 500 history — 0.010 seconds.

“This is a team victory because my teammates did a great job all day,” said Hamlin, winning here for the first time in 11 tries. “I can't even figure out what I did.”

Truex said Hamlin's win came down to a split-second decision.

“I felt like I had the momentum until the last couple of feet,” Truex said. “I wish I had crowded (Hamlin) up the track a little bit more down the front stretch. Those are split-second decisions, and Denny came out on the right end of it today.”

Hamlin was helped by Kevin Harvick, who pushed him even with Kenseth as he pulled from the apron to form an outside line.

“I was hoping that (the leaders) would start pushing and shoving like they did to get that outside lane going,” said Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 champion.

“You just want to be the first one to be in that outside line. (Hamlin) pulled up in front of us and he got the honor of being the first car in that line with all that momentum.”

And it was far too much momentum for Kenseth to stall as he was separated from Truex as the front-runners took the white flag with 199 laps complete.

“I was trying to block the 4 (Harvick),” said Hamlin, who became the sixth driver to win the Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 in the same year. “But he gave me such a great push, I just went for it. The last thing I wanted to do was brake in Turn 4, especially with my teammates in contention.

“I just remember pulling up in front of the 4 (Harvick) and him giving me a push and not letting off when he was pushing. Ultimately that was the push to the victory for us. I know we got to the outside of the 18 (Busch), the 78 (Truex) and then the 20 (Kenseth) came up to block high and I saw that the middle was going to be the only way I could get around both of them and we cleared the 20 and drag raced with the 78.”

Hamlin's Daytona 500 win is the first for Joe Gibbs Racing in 23 years. The JGR drivers claimed three of the top five positions.

Busch was third, and Carl Edwards, who survived two accidents in the No. 19 Toyota, charged from behind to finish fifth.

Kenseth, who led from Lap 160 to 199, finished 14th in the No. 20 JGR Toyota.

“The air got me in Turn 4, and I lost momentum,” said Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. “I got turned sideways, but there was nothing I could do to break his momentum.”

Truex and Busch had their chances over the last thrilling mile. Busch opted not to drift outside as Hamlin made his move around him. Truex had hoped to get a push from Busch and Edwards to slow Hamlin's momentum.

“(Hamlin) would have blitz me like he did the 20 (Kenseth),” Busch said. “It was good to have an opportunity to race and drive wide open. I figured with five (laps) to go, it was every man for himself.”

Chip Ganassi, a Fox Chapel native, watched anxiously as his drivers — Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray — consistently raced in the top 10. Larson finished seventh, and McMurray, the 2010 champion, settled for 17th.

Harvick, who barely survived a spinout early, finished fourth, and last year's winner, Joey Logano, was sixth. Regan Smith took eighth, and Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10.

Hamlin defied the odds in delivering Toyota its first Daytona 500 victory.

Hamlin was seemingly in an ideal position as he led midway through the race, but no driver had gone on to win after leading the first 100 laps since 1992.

And the leader on the last restart had won four of the previous five races, but this time Hamlin chased down Kenseth, who led on the final restart with 12 laps remaining.

“To win it for the boss (Gibbs) is the greatest feeling,” Hamlin said.

“It's the biggest race of my life. You couldn't have written a better ending to our week.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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