DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It’s been 21 years since Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated its only Daytona 500 victory.
Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have the team in good position to end the drought.
The JGR drivers swept the Daytona 500 qualifying races Thursday night. For Kenseth, it was redemption after a pair of wrecks during Speedweeks. Hamlin’s victory kept him undefeated on 2014.
Hamlin also won last Saturday’s exhibition Sprint Unlimited, and he goes into Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 trying to become the first driver in history to sweep Speedweeks.
“Once that snowball starts to roll, it’s hard to stop it, and right now we’re just on a heck of a run,” said Hamlin, who closed last year with a win in the season finale.
After going so many years without winning a second Daytona 500, team owner Joe Gibbs wasn’t looking ahead. His only win was with Dale Jarrett in 1993.
“We’ve come with great cars over the years. It shows you what a tough race this is, the 500,” he said. “This race is extremely, extremely hard to win. That probably says it the best. That says it the best, over 21 years, that’s a bunch.”
JGR had strong cars last season and seemed to be the team to beat during the race, but came up empty when Kenseth’s engine failed while leading. Minutes later, teammate Kyle Busch’s engine also failed. Toyota is still looking for its first win in the “Great American Race.”
“The last Daytona was so far away, we’ve moved well beyond that,” said Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson. “We’re certainly not sweating the issues we had last year.”
The qualifying races make for an emotional day as drivers race their way into the Daytona 500, while others are sent home from the biggest event of the NASCAR season.
Those left broken-hearted this year were Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek, Ryan Truex, Eric McClure and Morgan Shepherd, who at 72 was trying to become the oldest driver in the field. Dave Blaney withdrew from the qualifying race after wrecking his only car in Wednesday’s practice.
But it was euphoria for the small teams of Swan Racing, which got both Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman in the race a day after both drivers wrecked in practice, and Hillman Racing, which will be in the Daytona 500 with Landon Cassill, who was hit by a car Saturday while riding his bike in Daytona.
“I’ve been stressed out about this since July,” Cassill said. “I think I’ve played this race over in my head, what I think it could do, for months now. For a small team, this race kind of makes our whole season, just the prize money alone to start on Sunday gets us through the next six or seven weeks. It’s just huge for us.”
For Swan Racing, getting rookies Whitt and Kligerman into the field erased the nightmare of Wednesday.
Whitt wrecked moments into practice, and the team was forced to rebuild his car after Kligerman’s was totaled when he went airborne. It was the first time Kligerman was ever upside down. Because Swan has only one backup, Kligerman got it, and the team went to work rebuilding Whitt’s car.
Whitt raced his way in, but Kligerman faded in the first race and had to nervously watch the second race unfold to see if he earned a spot in the Daytona 500.
“I feel like in a lot of ways, you have the weight of an organization on your shoulders to get these two cars in the race,” Kligerman said. “It’s a growing organization, an organization that wants to be around for a long time to come.”
But the second race ended in chaos, making everyone unsure of anything as defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap to trigger a crash that caused Clint Bowyer’s car to flip.
“I knew he was saving gas coming to the green. It’s too bad to tear cars up like that,” Bowyer said. “That was one of the wildest flips I’ve ever had. I think we would have been just fine if I hadn’t hit the grass right here.”
Johnson was apologetic.
“I feel terrible. To tear up that many race cars … to see (Bowyer) flip … certainly want to apologize to everyone,” he said. “I tried to get up out of the way. So much energy in the pack that I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out because guys warned me about it – and it did.”
The first race was uneventful as Kenseth led two times for 31 of the 60 laps. Harvick pulled out on the final lap to make his bid for the victory. Then Kasey Kahne pulled out of line to make it three-wide.
After the race, Harvick was informed while sitting in the Fox Sports 1 studio as an analyst for the second race that his Chevrolet, sponsored by Budweiser, had failed post-race inspection for the first Budweiser Duel.
“Yeah, well, well, that’s no good,” Harvick said.