DAYTONA BEACH — Joe Gibbs Racing opened a new season exactly where it left off last year: atop the podium.
Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited — the kickoff to Speedweeks — on Saturday night to give JGR its third consecutive win in the exhibition race. Hamlin has three victories in the event since 2006.
He overcame early damage to his Toyota to score his first victory with new crew chief Mike Wheeler, a longtime engineer for the No. 11 team before his promotion. Wheeler gambled on fuel strategy, a luxury he had because the results have no meaning, and spent most of the closing laps encouraging Hamlin to save fuel.
"I don't know if he was poised. He was poised on the radio," Hamlin said. "We've got such a young team, crew chief, engineers, they all look like they're a bunch of high school kids."
Winning this exhibition race doesn't always translate into Daytona 500 success. The last driver to win both in one year was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
Joey Logano, last year's Daytona 500 winner, finished second in a Ford and was followed by Paul Menard, Kyle Larson and Casey Mears, all in Chevrolets.
JGR dominated most of last year and put all four of its drivers in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship. JGR driver Kyle Busch won the season finale at Homestead for his first title.
Brian Vickers' return lasted just 23 laps before a tire problem caused him to lose control of the car he was driving for injured driver Tony Stewart. The incident triggered a six-car accident that included Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick.
NASCAR got to try its new overtime rule, under which the leader must cross a marker to make a race official. Hamlin hit that spot before a wreck behind the leaders brought out the caution that froze the field.
"It didn't really come into play because we took the white flag under green, which was the same under the old format," Logano said
Dale Earnhardt Jr., always a favorite at Daytona and winner of July's race here, was involved in an early accident and finished four laps down.
"Typical. Everybody is excited to get in the cars and be competing in a race, so they are really aggressive," he said. "This race is always really aggressive."
ARCA: John Wes Townley won the Lucas Oil 200 season opener, leading 33 of 80 laps. Both of his career wins in the series have come at Daytona. "Your first one's always really special, but this one is, too," said Townley, who has also raced in NASCAR.
Practice power: Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski led the second Sprint Cup practice. Logano had the top speed at 195.933 mph, and Keselowski ran 195.848 mph in a pack.
NHRA: Steve Torrence led Top Fuel qualifying for the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., with a run of 3.703 seconds at 328.06 mph. Jack Beckman (3.888 seconds, 326.16 mph) led Funny Car and Greg Anderson (6.585, 209.62) topped Pro Stock.