DAYTONA BEACH — Denny Hamlin didn't know he won Sunday's photo-finish Daytona 500 until he saw his No. 11 flash to the top of the scoring pylon.
One joyous celebration and several replays later, he still couldn't comprehend the closest finish in the 58 runnings of the Great American Race.
"I don't know where that came from," Hamlin said. "I can't even figure out what I did."
What the Tampa-born Hamlin did was the culmination of a fortuitous pit-road blunder, a defensive maneuver and a gutsy final charge that sent the 35-year-old past teammate Matt Kenseth in the final two turns and ahead of Truex at the finish line by 0.01 seconds.
"They don't get much more crushing than that," Kenseth said.
As Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kenseth, Hamlin and Kyle Busch led 154 of the first 200 laps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season opener, Hamlin looked like the favorite to become the team's first 500 winner in 23 years. Once his No. 11 Toyota took the lead on a pit stop on Lap 24, he led 94 of the next 133 laps at Daytona International Speedway.
But he slid his tires as he entered the pits for the race's final stop. As other contenders took two tires, Hamlin needed four. Hamlin, whose family moved from Brandon to Virginia before his second birthday, thought the lost track position cost him a shot at victory.
"I blew it," Hamlin said.
When Hamlin dropped from first to seventh, Kenseth's No. 20 Toyota took the lead ahead of Truex — whose No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota is a JGR partner — and teammate Busch.
Hamlin tried to remain patient as the final laps slipped away. He didn't want to risk a crash that would wreck his team's chances.
It wasn't until Kevin Harvick bolted outside on the final lap that Hamlin decided to make a move. Hamlin jumped outside, too, to block Harvick from making a run at his teammates.
"I went up there to block, and he hit me so hard it shot me three cars forward," Hamlin said. "I had to do something with that run."
Hamlin's run sent him past Busch into third. Kenseth figured he couldn't hold off Hamlin for the lead through the final two corners. His safest option was to stay in the middle, watch Hamlin speed by and settle for second.
"But we're not here to run second," said Kenseth, a two-time 500 champion.
So Kenseth moved high to try to block Hamlin in Turn 3. Hamlin cranked the wheel as hard as he could to the inside. The four fresh tires from his pit-road failure gave him enough traction to dart inside Kenseth, creating a brief three-wide battle for the lead, with Truex hugging the bottom line.
"When I saw him go inside of the 20, I was thinking the worst," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "We're going to take both of our cars (out)."
They almost did. Hamlin's move got Kenseth loose in Turn 4 and pushed him toward the wall. Kenseth held on but faded to finish 14th.
Hamlin chased down Truex in front of the sold-out grandstands on the frontstretch. Their cars rubbed. When they passed the finish line, Gibbs thought Hamlin lost, while Truex wasn't sure how to interpret the screaming over his radio.
"Just got me by a couple feet," Truex said.
Actually, it was much less than that. Fox's telecast estimated the margin of victory at 4 inches.
But that was enough for Toyota to win NASCAR's biggest race for the first time and Hamlin to all but clinch a spot in the Chase for the Championship with the biggest victory of his 12-year career.
"It's, like, storybook," Hamlin said. "You make a pass on the last corner of the last lap of the Daytona 500."
Even if you have no idea how it happened.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.