Daytona 500 was action-packed opener NASCAR needed

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jim France told ’em to race and NASCAR’s next generation didn’t disappoint.

The Daytona 500 packed an unforeseen punch that, if nothing else, entertained Sunday’s sun-drenched, sold-out crowd at the famed “World Center of Racing.” There were a ton of wrecks, especially during the final 20 laps of regulation, which Kyle Busch described as the portion of the race in which “brains come unglued.”

The crashes led to nearly 40 minutes of stoppage for cleanup — breaks so long race-winner Denny Hamlin claimed he twice fell asleep in his Toyota. Hamlin led a clean sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing, which went 1-2-3 in an overtime finish that honored team co-founder J.D. Gibbs following his death last month at age 49 from a degenerative neurological disease.

It was an emotional weekend at Daytona International Speedway for Joe Gibbs, who leaned on his eldest son to run their NASCAR operation while he coached the Washington NFL team. J.D. Gibbs was a driver, a tire changer, team executive, talent scout and the man who discovered a struggling Virginia short-track racer who is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner.

Joe Gibbs has three Super Bowl victories and three wins in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, and he ranked Hamlin’s win “the most emotional and biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything.”

These are the moments when NASCAR shines bright, with a feel-good victory that honored a man who loved racing. The shared moment for Gibbs, his family and his race team dwarfed the rest of the 500.

There had been concern the main event might disappoint after three ho-hum exhibition races, but NASCAR got the event it needed to start its rebuilding season. France, the NASCAR chairman since August, used the pre-race driver meeting to urge the full 40-car field to get up on the wheel and race. Drivers had spent the week in single-file lines, and only Chase Elliott and Hamlin had frequented the second, bottom lane, leading into the 500.

“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today,” France said.

Who knows if France’s request — it sounded as if he was asking for a favor — was the kick in the seat the drivers needed? They raced hard from the very start, tore up a couple million dollars’ worth of cars, and put on a memorable show. The overnight TV rating was up 8 percent from last year’s record low — against the Winter Olympics — and early numbers indicated the Daytona 500 was trending toward the top-rated sports event of weekend.

Other takeaways:

• Matt DiBenedetto led a race-high 49 laps in his debut for mid-pack Leavine Family Racing. The team has crew chief Mike Wheeler, who won Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 four years ago, and a Toyota partnership that gave DiBenedetto a chance to win “The Great American Race.”

• Paul Menard was ensnared in both of the big wrecks at Speedweeks. Jimmie Johnson crashed him to deny Menard a win a week earlier in an exhibition race, then Menard triggered a 21-car accident Sunday. It ended DiBenedetto’s day and gave the race the indelible demolition-derby moment that surely will be used in marketing campaigns to come.

• Hendrick Motorsports had the front row at the start of the race but it was Johnson, in a battered Chevrolet, who led the camp with a ninth-place finish.

Jenna Fryer is an Associated Press writer.

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