You would be hard pressed to find a driver more ready to see 2013 in his rear view mirror than Denny Hamlin, save maybe Tony Stewart.
Hamlin, who had made the Chase for the Championship each of his previous seven seasons on the Sprint Cup series level, missed the NASCAR postseason last year. That of course due in large part to the broken back he suffered early in the season that caused him to miss four races and finish 23rd in the points.
On Saturday night, Hamlin won the season opening Sprint Unlimited, taking the checkered flag at the event for the second time in his career.
“We're motivated anyway for the start of this year, and obviously expectations were really high within our team,” said Hamlin. “But this obviously gives us even more.”
Hamlin won all three segments of the exhibition race that is the tradition start to the race season, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have to battle through the field. He did on more than one occasion, including a final pass with two laps to go that put him up front for good.
“Coming to the white, I felt like if I got clear of those guys three-wide getting into turn three, it would be tough for them to beat us,” said Hamlin of himself and teammate Kyle Busch who he drafted with in the final laps to get back up to the front. “Luckily by an inch or two we got clear of our teammate and got a good 1-3 finish and the gamble paid off.”
Brad Keselowski finished second and Busch as he mentioned finished third and the Joe Gibbs racing teammates were two of just eight cars that finished the race. That was due in large part to a big accident in the second segment of the race that took out eight of the 18 cars.
There was also an interesting moment when the pace car caught fire on the backstretch.
“When you think you see it all, then you see that,” said Keselwoski. “We've seen wires, jet driers. I don't even know what to expect for the 500. Seems like we always find the weirdest thing for the 500.”
As for Hamlin, who also won the final race of 2013 at Homestead. He says for the first time in a long time he feels healthy and comfortable in the car and he is motivated for the start of 2014.
“I don't know if my attitude's different. Attitude changed after California, for sure. You know, you're always excited about starting the season, but for me it was more about really starting the season strong, to just totally forget about 2013,” said Hamlin. “Obviously this is huge motivation and confidence that we can do a lot of great things when all the pieces fall right for us.”