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Column: Daytona 500 was action-packed opener NASCAR needed

(AP Photo/Terry Renna)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) 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 from a long battle with 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 Redskins. J.D. Gibbs was a driver, a tire changer, team executive, talent scout and the guy who discovered a struggling Virginia short track racer who is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner.

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 prerace 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 Hamlin and Chase Elliott 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 actually 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 rather memorable show. The overnight rating on Fox was up 8 percent from last year's record low - up against the Winter Olympics - and early numbers indicated the Daytona 500 was trending toward the top-rated sports event of weekend.

Some takeaways:

- Matt DiBenedetto led a race-high 49 laps in his debut for mid-pack Leavine Family Racing. The team now 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 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 on Sunday. It ended DiBenedetto's day and gave the race the indelible demolition derby moment that will surely 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. Only 14 cars finished on the lead lap, which helped Johnson and others salvage otherwise difficult races. Same for Kyle Larson, who was involved in three different incidents and still finished seventh. "What a gnarly night," said Johnson.

- Ford was heavily favored to win the race in its debut of the Mustang and Logano was fantastic in trying to chase down Hamlin in overtime. Logano wound up fourth - annoyed fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell did not push him at the end - in the lone bright spot for the manufacturer. It was a rough race for Stewart-Haas Racing, which had three drivers in contention for the victory until the late wrecks, and wound up with four crashed race cars.

- Small teams had big days , led by McDowell in fifth for Front Row Motorsports. Eight of the 40 drivers were making their Daytona 500 debut and Ryan Preece, a short-track star from New England, impressed with an eighth-place finish for JTG Daugherty Racing. Watermelon farmer Ross Chastain, in one of the slowest cars in the field, finished 10th.

The race, which clocked in at 3 hours, 45 minutes not including the stoppage time, was not the cleanest or the prettiest but it certainly was not dull.

"Anybody who thought they were going to line up and ride around the top for the Daytona 500 for 490 miles doesn't know the competitive nature of these guys," said crew chief Chris Gabehart, a winner in his debut with Hamlin. "The Daytona 500 with everybody out there trying to get after it, it's not going to be boring."

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Updated February 18, 2019

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