Denny Hamlin eyes Speedweeks trifecta with Daytona 500 win; 5 fail to make field

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin staked his claim as the favorite to win Sunday’s Daytona 500 after capturing the second Budweiser Duel 150 Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, in addition to last Saturday’s triumph in the Sprint Unlimited.

Hamlin held off late charges by both Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. Hamlin’s win put a decided Joe Gibbs Racing bookend on the evening, as teammate Matt Kenseth won the first of the two Duel races a couple of hours earlier.

“Just keep doing what we’re doing,” Hamlin said when asked what are his thoughts now going into Sunday’s race. “We’re on a roll obviously and we executed the race today great.”

Hamlin, who ended last season with a win at Homestead, is looking to become the first driver in Sprint Cup history to sweep all three major events of the season-opening Speedweeks: the Sprint Unlimited, one of the two Duels and cap it off with a win in the Great American Race.

But despite the success he’s had so far this year, Hamlin is not taking anything for granted, either.

“We still don’t have any more points than anyone at this point of the year, so we still have a lot of work to do,” Hamlin said.

With his runner-up showing in the second Duel Thursday night, Gordon will start sixth in Sunday’s main event, right behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne (fifth) and three spots ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ninth).

“I think we snuck in there with a quiet, under the radar, very fast car that’s capable of winning this race,” Gordon said. “I like it that way. Let some of those other guys get all the attention and get that target on their back.”

Fellow HMS teammate and defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson – who also hopes to begin his march to a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship on Sunday, as well – will start 32nd after running out of gas on the final lap of the second Duel and had his car hit by Jamie McMurray, triggering a multi-car wreck.

Kurt Busch will be the highest starting of the four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in the 500, taking the green flag from the eighth spot.

Tony Stewart will start 21st, Danica Patrick 27th and Kevin Harvick, whose runner-up finish in Thursday’s first duel was disqualified for a track bar violation, will start 38th.

“It’s a great start for us,” Busch said. “Thanks to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart, it’s away we go. … We’re proud to be upfront in the Great American Race.”

Busch is still in pursuit of his first Daytona 500 victory. He came close in 2007, finishing second, pushing then-Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman to the win.

Given how quickly he’s fit in at Stewart-Haas Racing, Busch feels at home in his new NASCAR address.

“It’s been everything I’ve hoped it to be,” Busch said. “This is a first-class organization built upon a championship foundation. It’s time to race. This is where you roll your sleeves up and where you lean on the communication of the team.”

When he was brought into the DIS media center after the second Duel, Busch was unaware that Harvick’s runner-up finish in the first Duel earlier in the evening had been disqualified after failing post-race inspection due having “exceeded the maximum split on the track bar,” according to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp.

Busch tried to add some levity to the incident, saying with a laugh, “Oh, that’s not good. Maybe there was a 12-pack in the trunk.”

The younger Busch brother, Kyle, was not laughing, though, finishing 21st of 24 drivers in the second duel. Kyle Busch will ultimately start Sunday’s race from the 37th position, alongside Harvick, ironically enough.

Austin Dillon will lead the field to the green flag from the pole position in Sunday’s 500-mile season-opener, with Martin Truex Jr. alongside on the front row.

Kenseth and Hamlin will share Row 2, Kasey Kahne and Gordon on Row 3, Marcos Ambrose and Kurt Busch on Row 4 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard will start from Row 5.

(Full starting grid at bottom of this story)

Five drivers failed to qualify for the race: Eric McClure, Ryan Truex, Joe Nemechek, Michael McDowell and Morgan Shepherd, who was attempting to make the field as the oldest driver to ever race in a 500 (Shepherd is 72).

Starting lineup for 56TH Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014:

Row 1

Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr.

Row 2

Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin

Row 3

Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon

Row 4

Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch

Row 5

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard

Row 6

Josh Wise, Brian Scott

Row 7

Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne

Row 8

AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson

Row 9

David Gilliland, Landon Cassill

Row 10

Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer

Row 11

Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray

Row 12

Cole Whitt, Terry Labonte

Row 13

Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte

Row 14

Danica Patrick, Casey Mears

Row 15

Alex Bowman, Carl Edwards

Row 16

Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson

Row 17

Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Row 18

Joey Logano, Michael Annett

Row 19

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick

Row 20

Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier

Row 21

Parker Kligerman, Michael Waltrip

Row 22

David Ragan

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Toro Rosso at crossroads after Kvyat’s point, Hartley’s strong debut

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In a weekend with something to prove at Circuit of The Americas, Daniil Kvyat rose to the occasion with what he called “his best race of the season for sure” at the United States Grand Prix.

But it may not be enough for the Russian to have saved his seat at Scuderia Toro Rosso for the three final races this year.

Meanwhile, New Zealander Brendon Hartley capped off his roller-coaster debut weekend in Formula 1 with a solid 13th place finish after starting from the rear of the grid, learning as the race went on and bringing home his Toro Rosso chassis to the flag.

Toro Rosso faces a dilemma of three drivers available but only two seats to fill for the final three Grands Prix, with the Mexican Grand Prix coming up just next week.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly will be back after missing Austin due to his Super Formula commitments at Suzuka in Japan, but ultimately that went for naught as the races were canceled due to a typhoon.

Kvyat qualified 12th, was promoted to 11th by way of grid penalties and ended 10th, scoring a point for only the third race this year and first time since coming ninth in the Spanish Grand Prix back in May.

It was a weekend where he would have been expected to outdo Hartley, and did so, but not by a massive margin. And he was already coming in with a track time disadvantage, losing out in FP1 as Indonesian Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael ran in his chassis.

As it was, he rated his weekend performance highly and didn’t do his chances of staying in the car any harm.

Speaking to NBCSN after the race, Kvyat said, “Yeah, it was a perfect race. I did everything well. Brought the points home. It was close with (Felipe) Massa.

“We had some energy release issues on the engine. But it was a massive weekend. It was great. I really enjoyed myself. It was a good job by the team to keep it together with very limited running.

Hartley built up confidence throughout the weekend as he learned the car, the Pirelli tires and how an F1 race races versus an endurance race that he’d been used to doing for several years.

Having coming into the weekend with no expectations and just taking the race session-by-session, he felt good at the end of it.

“There’s so many little things to reflect on,” he told NBCSN. “I’ll put the eyes at rest and process it all. I did the standing start and it wasn’t the best… it’s been a long time.

“But yeah, (you’re learning) in terms of following in traffic, what 20 laps on these tires means, how much you can push it. I’m pretty satisfied. The pace was pretty strong. I made the mistake of getting passed by (Lance) Stroll. I couldn’t pass him back. Lots of challenges. I hope I can get another shot at it.

“Up until this moment… I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to do the job. I’m really relaxed. Now there might be some conversations.”

Toro Rosso figures to reveal its Mexican Grand Prix driver lineup early this week.