Column: Daytona 500 was action-packed opener NASCAR needed


By JENNA FRYER - AP Auto Racing Writer - Monday, February 18



Multiple cars crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)

Multiple cars crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)


Multiple cars crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)


Erik Jones (20), William Byron (24), Brad Keselowski (2), and Brendan Gaughan (62) crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jim France told ‘em to race and NASCAR’s next generation didn’t disappoint.

The Daytona 500 packed an unforeseen punch that, if nothing else, entertained Sunday’s sun-drenched, sold-out crowd at the famed “World Center of Racing.” There were a ton of wrecks, especially during the final 20 laps of regulation, which Kyle Busch described as the portion of the race in which “brains come unglued.”

The crashes led to nearly 40 minutes of stoppage for cleanup — breaks so long race-winner Denny Hamlin claimed he twice fell asleep in his Toyota. Hamlin led a clean sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing, which went 1-2-3 in an overtime finish that honored team co-founder J.D. Gibbs following his death last month from a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.

It was an emotional weekend at Daytona International Speedway for Joe Gibbs, who leaned on his eldest son to run their NASCAR operation while he coached the Washington Redskins. J.D. Gibbs was a driver, a tire changer, team executive, talent scout and the guy who discovered a struggling Virginia short track racer who is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner.

Gibbs has three Super Bowl victories and three wins in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, and he ranked Hamlin’s win “the most emotional and biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything.”

These are the moments when NASCAR shines bright, with a feel-good victory that honored a man who loved racing. The shared moment for Gibbs, his family and his race team dwarfed the rest of the 500.

There had been concern the main event might disappoint after three ho-hum exhibition races, but NASCAR got the event it needed to start its rebuilding season. France, the NASCAR chairman since August, used the prerace driver meeting to urge the full 40-car field to get up on the wheel and race. Drivers had spent the week in single-file lines, and only Hamlin and Chase Elliott had frequented the second, bottom lane, leading into the 500.

“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today,” France said.

Who knows if France’s request — it actually sounded as if he was asking for a favor — was the kick in the seat the drivers needed? They raced hard from the very start, tore up a couple million dollars’ worth of cars, and put on a rather memorable show. The overnight rating on Fox was up 8 percent from last year’s record low — up against the Winter Olympics — and early numbers indicated the Daytona 500 was trending toward the top-rated sports event of weekend.

Some takeaways:

— Matt DiBenedetto led a race-high 49 laps in his debut for mid-pack Leavine Family Racing. The team now has crew chief Mike Wheeler, who won Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 four years ago, and a Toyota partnership that gave DiBenedetto a chance to win “The Great American Race.”

— Paul Menard was ensnared in both the big wrecks at Speedweeks. Jimmie Johnson crashed him to deny Menard a win a week earlier in an exhibition race, then Menard triggered a 21-car accident on Sunday. It ended DiBenedetto’s day and gave the race the indelible demolition derby moment that will surely be used in marketing campaigns to come.

— Hendrick Motorsports had the front row at the start of the race but it was Johnson, in a battered Chevrolet, who led the camp with a ninth-place finish. Only 14 cars finished on the lead lap, which helped Johnson and others salvage otherwise difficult races. Same for Kyle Larson, who was involved in three different incidents and still finished seventh. “What a gnarly night,” said Johnson.

— Ford was heavily favored to win the race in its debut of the Mustang and Logano was fantastic in trying to chase down Hamlin in overtime. Logano wound up fourth — annoyed fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell did not push him at the end — in the lone bright spot for the manufacturer. It was a rough race for Stewart-Haas Racing, which had three drivers in contention for the victory until the late wrecks, and wound up with four crashed race cars.

— Small teams had big days, led by McDowell in fifth for Front Row Motorsports. Eight of the 40 drivers were making their Daytona 500 debut and Ryan Preece, a short-track star from New England, impressed with an eighth-place finish for JTG Daugherty Racing. Watermelon farmer Ross Chastain, in one of the slowest cars in the field, finished 10th.

The race, which clocked in at 3 hours, 45 minutes not including the stoppage time, was not the cleanest or the prettiest but it certainly was not dull.

“Anybody who thought they were going to line up and ride around the top for the Daytona 500 for 490 miles doesn’t know the competitive nature of these guys,” said crew chief Chris Gabehart, a winner in his debut with Hamlin. “The Daytona 500 with everybody out there trying to get after it, it’s not going to be boring.”

Joe Gibbs dedicates Daytona 500 victory to late son

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

Monday, February 18

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Joe Gibbs closed his eyes during a tribute lap for his late son, while crew members raised a banner to honor the co-founder of Joe Gibbs Racing.

J.D. Gibbs had been hand-picked by his father to run the organization, changed tires during the early seasons, had a brief stint as a driver, pushed for a pivotal switch to Toyota and discovered Denny Hamlin. He signed Hamlin to drive the No. 11, his number from his football days, and it is his name above the driver door on Hamlin’s car.

J.D. Gibbs died last month following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease and Hamlin dedicated this NASCAR season to Gibbs’ memory.

When Hamlin crossed the finish line Sunday night to win his second Daytona 500 in four years, Joe Gibbs could not hold back what the moment meant to him. A Hall of Fame NFL coach with three Super Bowl victories ranked JGR’s third Daytona 500 win as top.

“It’s the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life in anything” Gibbs said. “J.D. built our race team, was the guy that ran day to day operations for 27 years. He invested his occupational life in our race team. It was the most important night in my occupational life.

“I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional.”

Hamlin came to Daytona determined to honor his late car owner with a victory.

He delivered a storybook tribute.

Hamlin led JGR in a 1-2-3 sweep of the podium in overtime and was met in victory lane by the entire Gibbs family, including J.D.’s widow and four sons.

“He meant a lot to me and it’s hard for me not getting choked up because I’ve been choked up about 100 times about it,” Hamlin said. “Just to have Melissa (Gibbs) and all the kids here, it’s just crazy.”

Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third as JGR became the second team in NASCAR history to sweep the Daytona 500 podium. Hendrick Motorsports did it in 1997 with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven.

Busch, now winless in 14 Daytona 500s, was initially openly disappointed in falling short.

“He’s got two, I’ve got none, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Busch said.

But he reiterated the JGR and Toyota goal of working together to win the race and noted he didn’t have much of a shot at beating Hamlin because the field had been decimated by a flurry of late accidents.

“Was trying to make sure one of us gets to victory lane, first and foremost,” Busch said. “There wasn’t enough cars out there running at the end. I don’t know how it would have played out.”

Hamlin and Busch alternated as the leaders during the handful of late restarts, and the final rush to the checkered flag was a push to hold off Ford driver and reigning NASCAR champion Joey Logano. The Ford camp went 1-2-3 in both of Thursday’s qualifying races and was favored to win the Daytona 500.

Logano, who started his career at JGR, settled for fourth and also took a moment to honor J.D. Gibbs.

“I’m not a Gibbs driver but for what J.D. has done for my career is the reason why I’m sitting here today,” Logano said. “As bad as I want to win it, it is pretty cool to think that the first race after his passing, to see those guys one, two, three, it just says he’s up there watching and maybe gave (those) guys a little extra boost there at the end.”

Hamlin last year suffered through his first winless season in the Cup Series and made a crew chief change during the offseason. When he won the 500 in 2016 it was his debut race with crew chief Mike Wheeler, and this victory came in his first race with Chris Gabehart.

Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 victory was in a photo finish against Martin Truex Jr. and the celebration was a blur. This one, he said, he will enjoy.

“I think I was so dumbfounded about everything that happened the first time with the photo finish and everything,” Hamlin said. “This one lets me soak it in a little bit more. I’m going to have a terrible hangover tomorrow, but I’m going to enjoy it the rest of my life.”

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Denny Hamlin cruises to 2nd Daytona 500 victory in 4 years

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

Monday, February 18

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Denny Hamlin came to the Daytona 500 determined to honor his late car owner with a victory.

He delivered with a storybook tribute for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Hamlin won NASCAR’s biggest race for the second time in four years Sunday, leading JGR in a 1-2-3 sweep of the podium in overtime. The race and the season have been dedicated to J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs’ eldest son who died last month after battling a degenerative neurological disease.

J.D. Gibbs helped his father start the race team, ran it while Joe Gibbs was coaching the Washington Redskins, was a tire changer on the team’s first Daytona 500 victory and the one who discovered Hamlin during a test session at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Hamlin was hired to drive the No. 11 — the number J.D. Gibbs used when he played football — and J.D. Gibbs’ name is on the Toyota.

When Hamlin stopped his car along the frontstretch to collect the checkered flag, he immediately credited J.D. Gibbs.

“The whole family, they did so much for me over the course of my career, and this one is for J.D,” Hamlin said. “We are desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives. His legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing and proud to do this for them.”

Hamlin was met in victory lane by the entire Gibbs family, including J.D.’s widow and four sons.

“He meant a lot to me and it’s hard for me not getting choked up because I’ve been choked up about 100 times about it,” Hamlin said. “Just to have Melissa (Gibbs) and all the kids here, it’s just crazy.”

Joe Gibbs, the Hall of Fame NFL coach with three Super Bowl victories, ranked the tribute win to his son first in his career accomplishments. J.D. Gibbs encouraged his father to move the team from a crowded-Chevrolet camp to become Toyota’s flagship team in 2008 and the Daytona 500 victory was the 100th for JGR in a Camry.

“It is the most emotional and biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything,” Gibbs said. “It was the most important night in my occupational life. I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional.”

Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third as JGR became the second team in NASCAR history to sweep the Daytona 500 podium. Hendrick Motorsports did it in 1997 with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven.

Busch, now winless in 14 Daytona 500s, was initially openly disappointed in falling short.

“He’s got two, I’ve got none, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Busch said.

But he reiterated the JGR and Toyota goal of working together to win the race and noted he didn’t have much of a shot at beating Hamlin because the field had been decimated by a flurry of late accidents.

“Was trying to make sure one of us gets to victory lane, first and foremost,” Busch said. “There wasn’t enough cars out there running at the end. I don’t know how it would have played out.”

The Cup Series slogged through three uninspiring exhibition races during Speedweeks to cause concern over a potentially disappointing main event. Jim France, who took over as chairman of NASCAR last August, used the pre-race driver meeting to ask the drivers to liven up the activity. Hamlin and Chase Elliott were the rare drivers to use the bottom lane in the exhibition races while the rest of the field ran single-file along the top.

“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today,” France told the field.

The drivers obeyed and delivered an action-packed and wreck-filled running of “The Great American Race.”

There was an accident on pit road, a 21-car crash, 12 cautions and five wrecks in the final 20 laps of regulation. The race was stopped twice for cleanup totaling nearly 40 minutes in the final stretch. During the second red-flag, one of NASCAR’s track-drying trucks broke down while cleaning oil off the racing surface.

Hamlin and Busch alternated as the leaders during the handful of late restarts, and the final rush to the checkered flag was a push to hold off Ford driver and reigning NASCAR champion Joey Logano. The Ford camp went 1-2-3 in both of Thursday’s qualifying races and was favored to win the Daytona 500.

Logano, who started his career at JGR, settled for fourth and also took a moment to honor J.D. Gibbs.

“I’m not a Gibbs driver but for what J.D. has done for my career is the reason why I’m sitting here today,” Logano said. “As bad as I want to win it, it is pretty cool to think that the first race after his passing, to see those guys one, two, three, it just says he’s up there watching and maybe gave (those) guys a little extra boost there at the end.”

Michael McDowell was fifth in a Ford but aggravated Logano by not working with him in the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.

“I just told him that my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win,” McDowell said.

Ty Dillon was sixth in the highest-finishing Chevrolet.

The race featured eight drivers making their Daytona 500 debuts and rookie Ryan Preece, a short track racer from New England, was best in class with an eighth-place finish. Ross Chastain, the eighth-generation watermelon farmer who lost his main ride for this year when the FBI raided his sponsor right before Christmas, finished 10th,

Jamie McMurray, the 2010 winner, led six laps and was in the mix until he was collected in one of the late accidents. He finished 22nd in his final race before retirement.

William Byron and Alex Bowman were the youngest front row in race history but had little to show for it after the race. Bowman finished 11th and Byron, the pole-sitter, was 21st.

Hamlin last year suffered through his first winless season in the Cup Series and made a crew chief change during the offseason. When he won the 500 in 2016 it was his debut race with crew chief Mike Wheeler, and this victory came in his first race with Chris Gabehart.

Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 victory was in a photo finish against Martin Truex Jr. and the celebration was a blur. This one, he said, he will enjoy.

“I think I was so dumbfounded about everything that happened the first time with the photo finish and everything,” Hamlin said. “This one lets me soak it in a little bit more. I’m going to have a terrible hangover tomorrow, but I’m going to enjoy it the rest of my life.”

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Tirico chosen to host NBC’s inaugural Indy 500 coverage

Friday, February 15

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — NBC Sports announced Friday that Mike Tirico will anchor the network’s inaugural Indianapolis 500 coverage on May 26, giving him his first glimpse at the largest single-day crowd to attend a sporting event anywhere in the world.

“I am thrilled to join our team as we cover one of America’s iconic sporting events,” Tirico said in a statement released by the company. “Having long enjoyed the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as a viewer, it will be fabulous to see it in person for the first time.”

The announcement comes exactly 100 days before the Memorial Day weekend race.

It also represents a major shift.

ABC televised the previous 54 races, but this season NBC and NBC Sports Network became the exclusive broadcast partner of the IndyCar Series. Naturally, company executives figured their marquee announcer was the best fit to call IndyCar’s biggest race.

“There’s no better way to come on the air for the biggest spectator event in the world than with Mike Tirico, the best big-event host in sports television,” said Sam Flood, the president of production for NBC Sports and NBCSN. “Mike’s role will be to set the scene for the millions of viewers watching at home, not only touching on the drivers and the racing, but also on the enormous crowd and countless happenings around the speedway.”

Tirico’s low-key presence has helped make him one of the most popular sportscasters in the business.

He has covered everything from the Olympics and the World Cup to Wimbledon and The Masters. He’s hosted NBC’s Football Night in America coverage, the Stanley Cup Final and the NHL’s All-Star Game. He’s called Notre Dame football games and major college bowl games.

Now Tirico will have his first shot to cover the 500.

NBC Sports will televise eight of this season’s races starting with the March 10 season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida. NCBSN will air the remaining nine races this season.

Multiple cars crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122344015-c3cb431150bf49c9944e44d2bd1c799c.jpgMultiple cars crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)

Multiple cars crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122344015-b06b9e84065f4c9ca48f0d7c214ff1d5.jpgMultiple cars crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)

Erik Jones (20), William Byron (24), Brad Keselowski (2), and Brendan Gaughan (62) crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122344015-95f4c8c65bbb4cc9af8c591449faf252.jpgErik Jones (20), William Byron (24), Brad Keselowski (2), and Brendan Gaughan (62) crash during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

Monday, February 18

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports