DAYTONA BEACH — Denny Hamlin won a race of attrition Saturday night, beating just seven other cars to the finish of the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
Only eight cars were running at the end of the 75-lap showcase at Daytona International Speedway on a bizarre night that saw Ricky Stenhouse end girlfriend Danica Patrick's race and the Chevrolet pace car catch fire.
"When you think you've seen it all, then you see that. It's never-ending," second-place finisher Brad Keselowski said about the pace car fire. "I thought it was a race car. Someone said it was the pace car, and I couldn't help but start laughing."
A replacement pace car finished the race.
Hamlin got the last laugh, winning the opening NASCAR race of Speedweeks for the second time in his career.
The victory proved Hamlin has finally fully recovered from the fractured vertebra that cost him four races last season, a year in which his only victory came in the finale at Homestead.
"The best car won, that's for sure," he said. "We're two in a row now."
The third and final segment was a 20-lap sprint and had the second fewest number of drivers taking the checkered flag in event history. Only seven drivers finished the 1981 race, then known as the Busch Clash.
Hamlin charged to the front right before the white flag and drove away in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
The race had a heavy fan involvement as sponsor Sprint allowed fans to vote for various aspects of the race.
But it was mostly for naught as half of the 18-car field was knocked out six laps into the second segment when Matt Kenseth cut across the front of Joey Logano. It triggered a nine-car accident on the frontstretch — including Stenhouse's dramatic late hit into the side of Patrick's car.
"I got hit by my boyfriend. What a bummer," Patrick said.
Stenhouse took blame for ending Patrick's race. He had difficulty seeing in front of him because his hood was badly crumpled when he hit the back of Kurt Busch.
"I just drilled her," Stenhouse said. "I didn't see anything from the time it started to the time it ended. … I couldn't see, couldn't turn."
Logano rebounded to finish fourth. Third-place Kyle Busch and fifth-place Kevin Harvick also fought back after sustaining damage from other crashes.
The big wreck also took out Tony Stewart, in his first race since breaking his leg in a sprint car crash in August. Stewart said he felt physically fine after Saturday's hard hit, which left his car turned nose-first into the wall.
"I was a little nervous … but it doesn't feel bad at all," Stewart said. "I don't have any pain. We'll see when the adrenaline wears off. But so far, everything feels really good. I'm pretty happy with it."
Kenseth, whose changing of lanes triggered the accident, said he had no idea Logano was on his inside when he moved.
"Honestly, I had no idea anybody was inside of me," Kenseth said. "I feel bad all of those cars got wrecked."