By Christopher Miles
February 22, 2014
AP Auto Racing Writer
Eds: Updates with quotes, details. Will be updated. With AP Photos.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Denny Hamlin is still undefeated in 2014, winning the second Daytona 500 qualifying race Thursday night as he coolly pulled away from the field as chaos erupted behind him.
Now he will attempt to become the first driver in history to sweep Speedweeks when he tries to win Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500. Hamlin also won last Saturday night’s exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
“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.
Matt Kenseth, Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, won the first Budweiser Duel 150 on Thursday night.
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were strong last season and contenders to win, but came up empty when Kenseth’s engine failed while leading. Minutes later, teammate Kyle Busch’s engine 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.”
JGR and the manufacturer are in great shape headed into Sunday following the strong performance Thursday in the two races, the first of which was redemption for Kenseth, who was involved in two wrecks earlier in Speedweeks.
So he felt vindicated when he nipped Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne at the finish line to win the first race.
“It makes up a little bit for the rest of the week — the rest of the week I haven’t been very coordinated,” Kenseth said. “I was kind of embarrassed walking in the garage. You feel like people are kind of looking at you cross-eyed.”
While the first race was uneventful, the second race had a wild ending when defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas as the field raced toward the checkered flag. It caused Jamie McMurray to run into the back of Johnson, turning Johnson sideways and both cars into the wall.
The entire pack began to spin around them, and Clint Bowyer flipped upside down. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip slid through the grass and hit hard into the inside retaining wall.
“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.
Both JGR drivers were dominant.
Kenseth led two times for 31 of the 60 laps, but Harvick pulled out on the final lap to make his bid for the victory. Then Kahne pulled out of line to make it three-wide.
But Kenseth stayed on the gas of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the top of the track and was the first car across the finish line in what fans hope was a preview of Sunday’s season-opening race.
“We just had a three-wide finish for the win,” Harvick said. “I guess if you guys don’t like that, we’ll have to try something different.”
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,” said Harvick, who will have to start at the back of the Daytona 500 field as penalty. He’ll be joining Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick, who also have to fall to the back for making unapproved engine changes.
Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman, both rookies, raced their way into the 43-driver field via the available transfer spots.
“It’s a huge sigh of relief,” said Bowman, who drove a Toyota for BK Racing. “It’s huge for me and my family. Shoot, we’re in the Daytona 500. It’s something I watched every year as a kid.”
Whitt battled back in a car that was damaged in Wednesday’s practice and had to be rebuilt after teammate Parker Kligerman also wrecked. Kligerman needed a backup car, and Swan Racing only had one, so the team was forced to rebuild Whitt’s Toyota.
Kligerman was in the same 150-mile qualifying race as Whitt, but finished 18th and didn’t transfer into the Daytona 500. He had to wait for the second Budweiser 150 Mile to see if he made the field.
It was a wild turn of events for Kligerman, who was turned upside down for the first time in his career in Wednesday’s wreck, then landed a sponsor for the Daytona 500 in Lending Tree on Thursday morning, then had to sweat out his spot in the “Great American Race.”
Kligerman’s backup car wasn’t as good as his primary, and he struggled on the final lap, when he dropped from ninth to 18th. He found out after the second race he made it into the 500.
Josh Wise, driving for underfunded Phil Parsons Racing, finished sixth in the first race to make the Daytona 500.
“It’s a big burden lifted off, for sure. Sleep has been light this week,” Wise said.