NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Takes Third Sprint Unlimited

NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Takes Third Sprint Unlimited

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.


The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season saw its first laps turned in anger Saturday night in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway. The race, while not a points affair, usually gives valuable insight into what fantasy players should expect in the following qualifying races and, ultimately, the Daytona 500. The race is a 75-lap showdown separated into two segments by a competition caution around lap 25.

Like in last year's exhibition race, the carnage was plenty in this race. Only 12 of the 25 cars that started Saturday night's event actually finished on the lead lap. There were few cars that didn't have some kind of damage, and even the leader had a machine held together by tape at the finish. The biggest takeaway from the running is that it still appears difficult to pass the leader at Daytona. Joey Logano played line leader in last year's Daytona 500 for the win, and only three different drivers led laps Saturday. The NASCAR rules package creates plenty of tight racing inside the pack, but breaking free for the lead will take something special.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin didn't manage to skate through Saturday night unscathed despite taking his third Unlimited victory. He sustained damage to the side of his car when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost a tire. The No. 11 pitted to repair the damage and returned to the fray. Hamlin quickly made his way forward again and was able to stay ahead of crashes later in the race


The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season saw its first laps turned in anger Saturday night in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway. The race, while not a points affair, usually gives valuable insight into what fantasy players should expect in the following qualifying races and, ultimately, the Daytona 500. The race is a 75-lap showdown separated into two segments by a competition caution around lap 25.

Like in last year's exhibition race, the carnage was plenty in this race. Only 12 of the 25 cars that started Saturday night's event actually finished on the lead lap. There were few cars that didn't have some kind of damage, and even the leader had a machine held together by tape at the finish. The biggest takeaway from the running is that it still appears difficult to pass the leader at Daytona. Joey Logano played line leader in last year's Daytona 500 for the win, and only three different drivers led laps Saturday. The NASCAR rules package creates plenty of tight racing inside the pack, but breaking free for the lead will take something special.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin didn't manage to skate through Saturday night unscathed despite taking his third Unlimited victory. He sustained damage to the side of his car when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost a tire. The No. 11 pitted to repair the damage and returned to the fray. Hamlin quickly made his way forward again and was able to stay ahead of crashes later in the race and used fuel strategy to stay out of the pits. He held off Brad Keselowski and teammate Matt Kenseth as the trio battled for the lead in the final laps along with Carl Edwards. It was Hamlin who was out front and stayed there in the closing miles.

Brad Keselowski –Despite starting on the front row and leading the opening laps, Keselowski picked up debris on his grill and his engine overheated, forcing him backward. He dropped to the back of the pack with fluid boiling over as the first caution of the race flew for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s blown tire and spin. During the caution, Keselowski pitted twice to refill the engine with water and remove the debris, and was able to work his way back inside the top 10 in just a handful of laps. He battled with the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in the final miles for the win, but couldn't make any of his Hamlin pass attempts stick. This team certainly learned a few things they'll bring to next Sunday's affair.

Joey Logano – Both Penske Racing drivers picked up where they left off in 2015 with strong outings for the Ford camp. While they're no longer the clear standard bearers for the brand, they seem to have maintained the upper hand over Roush Fenway Racing. Logano's second-place finish on Saturday night came from avoiding some of the major issues that befell others and it demonstrates that one of last season's best drivers may challenge at the top of the championship table again in 2016. Logano is the defending Daytona 500 champion, and should have his sights firmly set on winning his first Sprint Cup in 2016. He'll be a driver to watch for each week this season.

Kyle Larson – After placing fifth in his first Sprint Unlimited in 2015, Larson backed up his success with a fourth-place finish Saturday night. Chip Ganassi Racing struggled for most of 2015, and Larson is still seeking his first Sprint Cup win. However, it appears that the team has made some forward strides for 2016. Larson was a consistent face in the top five all night and successfully dodged most of the wrecks that befell his competition. Larson's fourth-place finish may have been a bit below expectations but demonstrates that he can be a consistent top-five driver, and that opens the door to victories. All eyes are on this young driver to see if he makes that breakthrough in 2016.

DOWNGRADE

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse wasn't able to leverage his Ford's new nose Saturday night. He was the first driver to lose control in the race, spinning in the turn due to a rear tire failure, which brough out the first caution of the race due to a cut rear tire. The failure caused significant damage to the back of Stenhouse's car, which is a tough thing to overcome at a track so dependent on aerodynamics. Were it not for the carnage that ruined most other drivers' nights Stenhouse would have finished at the bottom of the order. However, as things turned out the Roush driver worked his way back up to finish sixth in NASCAR's new overtime format with a battered machine.

Brian Vickers – Tony Stewart's winter misfortune was Vickers's gain. Vickers, who has been in and out of competition for the past handful of years, stepped into the No. 14 seat when Stewart broke his back in a nonracing incident. The year was to be Stewart's final send off before retiring, but it will be an abbreviated one. Saturday night was an abbreviated one for Vickers, too. He fell victim to the race's second rear tire failure and hooked the chassis into the outside wall after scraping Earnhardt and took Kevin Harvick with him. The damage was severe and race-ending. He substitutes for Stewart in next week's Daytona 500 and will have Thursday's qualifying races to gain more confidence.

Kevin Harvick – Bad luck caught Harvick out early in Saturday night's Unlimited. Vickers's rear tire failure collected Harvick and put him into the wall along with the No. 14. The team was forced to pit for extensive repairs to Harvick's chassis, and any chance of scoring his fourth win in the race went out the window. Once the damage was assessed to be too severe to continue, Harvick exited the car and ended his night. Now he'll focus his sights on next week's big prize. Harvick won the series title in 2014 and was widely expected to repeat in 2015. He didn't pull it off and will be back just as hungry this year.

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer's first race with HScott Motorsports was one to forget. He's in an interim year after he left long-time team Michael Waltrip Racing as it closed its doors in 2015 and before he takes over for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car in 2017. Vickers clipped Bowyer's car Saturday night, just as he clipped Harvick in the same incident. The damage to Bowyer's car was also extensive, and his first race with the team ended with the car on a tow truck's hook being dragged to the garage. Bowyer hasn't been the bright, shining driver fans expected earlier in his career, but a new team and a bright future with Stewart-Haas Racing may be just what he needs to relight that spark.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson extended Saturday night's crash fest when he was caught in the middle of two lines of cars on the backstretch. His car was squeezed so tightly that he lost control and spun into the infield. The car dug into the grass and the nose was ripped off, forcing him into the garage for significant remediation. Johnson has only won the Unlimited once in his career, and this incident meant no second win in in 2016. Johnson used to be the most dominant driver in the series, but since the introduction of the Chase's knockout format, his quest for more titles has been stunted. The regular season is where Johnson can shine, though.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Casey Mears – Mears entered Saturday's Unlimited with an average finish of 8.3 in his three appearances in the race's format. He backed up that history with a confident fifth-place finish on Saturday. Mears was consistently inside the top 10 and seemed to be involved in many of the race's biggest moments as a pusher in the draft. Mears hasn't seen the headline successes that create superstars, but he has proven he can be a factor on certain tracks. Daytona is one of those places for Mears, and fantasy players should keep an eye on how he performs in Thursday's qualifying races. He might earn a spot as a drafting friend to one of the top cars next week, which might earn him a chance at the front.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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