Monday, February 22, 2016

A lap for the ages

I saw 2006, as the shadows lengthened and Denny Hamlin chased the freight train down Daytona's backstretch for the last time.

I saw May in Indianapolis and Sam Hornish Jr. too far back to reel in Marco Andretti, until he reeled him in. It was the suddenness of it that stole your breath: One second Hornish was hopelessly adrift as he chased Marco into turn three on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500, and then they were through turn four and he was eating up the ground between them in voracious gulps. And then ...

Well. Then he caught Marco, passed him less than 200 yards from the yard of brick, beat him by a nose.

Fast forward to late Sunday afternoon, and deja vu all over again.

With a lap to go Hamlin was fourth and moving to the outside line with Kevin Harvick, the Daytona equivalent of a last-second heave from midcourt. Coming off two he was getting a push from Harvick but still hopelessly adrift of the leaders, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex.

And then ...

Well. Then you blinked, and suddenly -- before the freight train even reached turn three --  he was right there.  I don't know how he did it. Harvick pushing and skillful side-drafting by Hamlin, most likely. But, as with Hornish and Andretti, it looked like an optical illusion.

One second he was far too far back;.the next he was eating Kenseth alive with a huge run to the outside, and Kenseth was moving high to block. And then Hamlin was cranking the wheel and shooting the gap between Kenseth and Truex with the best Daytona move I've seen since Jeff Gordon going low to squeeze past Rusty Wallace back in 1999.

After that it was drag race, and Hamlin beat Truex by inches.

I've been watching Daytona 500s for a long time. That was the best finish I've ever seen.

It beats out by a nose Harvick edging Mark Martin on the last lap in 2007, and the fabled 1976 finish when Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed each other out coming off turn four on the last lap, and Pearson had the wherewithal to keep the clutch in and the motor running and limped under the checkers to win.

This was better. And if there was a throwback sense to it, it came partly from what Hamlin said when it was done.

Brand loyalty has always been a thing in NASCAR, but now there are so many brands the loyalty part weirdly gets lost sometimes. Not yesterday. Yesterday, Hamlin was calling it a win for Team Toyota, which had never won the Daytona 500 but dominated this running, finishing 1-2-3 and taking four of the first five spots.

Just another throwback moment on a day that rang with them.

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