DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It has been 21 years since Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated its only Daytona 500 victory.
Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have the team in good position to end the drought.
The JGR drivers swept the Daytona 500 qualifying races Thursday night. For Kenseth, it was redemption after a pair of wrecks during Speedweeks. Hamlin’s victory in the second qualifying race kept him undefeated in 2014.
Hamlin also won last Saturday’s exhibition Sprint Unlimited, and he goes into Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 trying to become the first driver in history to sweep Speedweeks.
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“Once that snowball starts to roll, it’s hard to stop it, and right now we’re just on a heck of a run,” said Hamlin, who closed last year with a win in the season finale.
After going so many years without winning a second Daytona 500, team owner Joe Gibbs wasn’t looking ahead. His only win was with Dale Jarrett in 1993.
“We’ve come with great cars over the years. It shows you what a tough race this is, the 500,” Gibbs said. “This race is extremely, extremely hard to win. That probably says it the best. That says it the best, over 21 years, that’s a bunch.”
JGR had strong cars last season and seemed to be the team to beat during the race, but came up empty when Kenseth’s engine failed while leading. Minutes later, teammate Kyle Busch’s engine also failed. Toyota is still looking for its first win in the “Great American Race.”
“The last Daytona was so far away, we’ve moved well beyond that,” said Toyota racing development President David Wilson. “We’re certainly not sweating the issues we had last year.”
The second qualifying race ended in chaos as defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap to trigger a crash that caused Clint Bowyer’s car to flip.
“I knew he was saving gas coming to the green. It’s too bad to tear cars up like that,” Bowyer said. “That was one of the wildest flips I’ve ever had.”
Johnson was apologetic.
“I feel terrible. To tear up that many race cars … to see (Bowyer) flip … certainly want to apologize to everyone,” he said. “I tried to get up out of the way. So much energy in the pack that I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out because guys warned me about it — and it did.”
The first race was uneventful as Kenseth led two times for 31 of the 60 laps. Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne finished second, and Vancouver, Wash., native Greg Biffle finished 12th.
Kahne will start fifth in Sunday’s Daytona 500, and Biffle will start 25th.
Among the drivers who failed to qualify for Sunday’s race were Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek, Ryan Truex, Eric McClure and Morgan Shepherd, who at 72 was trying to become the oldest driver in the field.