Sunday, January 21, 2018
Sports

Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth win Daytona qualifiers

DAYTONA BEACH — It has been 21 years since Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated its only Daytona 500 victory to date.

Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have the team in good position to end that drought Sunday.

The JGR drivers swept the two Daytona 500 qualifying races Thursday night. For Kenseth, it was redemption after a pair of wrecks during Speedweeks. Hamlin's victory kept him undefeated in 2014.

Hamlin also won Saturday's exhibition Sprint Unlimited, and he goes into Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 trying to become the first driver 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 2013 with a win in the 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," Gibbs 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 Daytona 500, but it 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 Daytona 500.

Kenseth will start third and Hamlin fourth on Sunday, behind the Chevrolets of pole-sitter Austin Dillon and Martin Truex Jr.

The 150-mile qualifying races make for an emotional day as drivers race their way into the Daytona 500 while others are sent home.

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.

But it was euphoria for the small teams of Swan Racing, which got Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman in the race a day after both drivers wrecked in practice, and Hillman Racing, which will be in the 500 with Landon Cassill, who was hit by a car Saturday while riding his bike.

Whitt raced his way in, but Kligerman faded in the first race and had to watch the second race to see if he earned a spot.

The second race ended in chaos, making everyone unsure of anything as defending 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."

The first race was uneventful as Kenseth led two times for 31 of the 60 laps. Kevin 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 had failed postrace inspection for the first duel because of a trackbar issue.

"Yeah, well, well, that's no good," said Harvick, whose qualifying result was disallowed. But he won't have to join team co-owner Tony Stewart and teammate Danica Patrick at the back of the 43-car field. Stewart and Patrick were penalized for making unapproved engine changes.

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