Craig Murto: A thrilling finish to the Daytona 500

Denny Hamlin’s victory in the 58th running of the Daytona 500 was absolutely thrilling.

In fact, the 0.01-second finish is the closest in Daytona 500 history. The race also was the first Daytona 500 victory for Joe Gibbs racing since 1993, when Dale Jarrett won the race. It also marks the first Daytona 500 win for Toyota.

There were enough cautions due to crashes and debris from cut tires to keep the race interesting, though thankfully there was no “big one” as usually happens during the restrictor-plate events.

There was only one green-flag stop during the entire race. Restarts kept the race interesting, and put track position into the hands of the crew chiefs making the calls and the crew members performing the pit stops.

The final lap is the highlight of the entire race. Matt Kenseth pulled out to a two- to three-car-length lead over Martin Truex Jr. heading down the backstretch. At the same time, Hamlin pulled out to create a high lane and got some help from Kevin Harvick.

Kenseth’s mistake was pulling out too far in front, which allowed the cars behind him to get a run on him in the draft. As the field entered Turn 3, Truex closed, but it was Denny Hamlin who had the full head of steam on the outside. Kenseth moved to block the outside, which allowed Truex to pull even underneath. Hamlin thread the needle and went between both cars.

Kenseth nearly crashed attempting to block Hamlin, and fell to 14th. Hamlin and Truex beat and banged off each other down the front stretch toward the tri-oval, where Hamlin finally pulled the win off by mere inches.

It was an incredible finish. But was it an incredible race?

When 40 cars are bunched up in a group at nearly 200 mph, there’s always a certain amount of excitement as any small mistake by any single driver can cause an accident that wipes out half the field. And it doesn’t even have to be a mistake; the way the cars get buffeted around in the draft, sometimes a car can get turned sideways without any input from the driver.

The problem is that there wasn’t a lot of racing for the lead. “Clean air” is premium with the current aero package on restrictor-plate tracks. The lead car has the advantage. If a car didn’t have help – or have a good run, such as Hamlin on the final lap – there wasn’t going to be any passing. If you stepped out of line or got pushed out of line, if nobody got behind you to help push you forward in the draft, you dropped to the back of the pack like a lead weight in water.

If the rules can be tweaked to allow for easier passing on the restrictor plate tracks, NASCAR should do it. A tight group of cars at 200 mph is exciting, but true racing for the lead is even better.

Hopefully that true racing is what we’ll see this week in Atlanta, where the low-downforce rules package will be implemented. Combined with tires from Goodyear that drop off with wear, NASCAR expects the racing to be much improved. The package was tested twice last year with positive results, and drivers were excited about the fact that the cars require more driver input and aren’t simply planted into the racetrack as they are at Daytona and Talladega. Maybe NASCAR should consider racing with the same low-downforce aero package at the restrictor plate tracks. When the late Buddy Baker won the 1980 Daytona 500 at an average speed of 177.6 mph – a record that still stands for a 500-mile race – the cars weren’t planted to the track the way they are today.

One of the highlights of Daytona was the addition of Jeff Gordon in the broadcast booth. Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds do a good job, but Jeff Gordon has actually driven modern Sprint Cup cars. He knows what it feels like when the splitter is hitting the racetrack; in Waltrip’s day, if the nose of the car hit the pavement it meant your suspension was broken.

There was nothing broken on Denny Hamlin’s car at Daytona, and in his 11th attempt he took the No. 11 to victory lane, inching ahead of Martin Truex Jr. in the closest Daytona 500 finish ever run. If this is what we have in store for the rest of the season, 2016 should prove to be rather exciting.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.