Race Weekend Central

58 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 58th (2016) Daytona 500

Toyota first entered the NASCAR Cup Series ranks in 2007, and the manufacturer won its first race with Kyle Busch at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2008. It took nine-odd years, but it finally reached the mountain top in 2015, when Busch became the first Toyota driver to win the series championship.

Even with the title, there were plenty of wins that had long eluded Toyota. For starters, it had yet to win a manufacturers championship; Chevrolet was in the middle of a dynasty, as it had won 13 titles in a row starting in the 2003 season.

For individual race wins, no Toyota driver had ever won the Daytona 500. The closest the make came was in 2014, when that year’s polesitter, Denny Hamlin, finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But as the days ticked down for the 58th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 21, 2016, Toyota had an ace up its sleeve.

And it worked better than anyone dared imagine.

For now, the heavy favorite heading into the Great American Race of 2016 was Hendrick Motorsports trio Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and rookie Chase Elliott.

Hendrick was a force at superspeedways in 2015, as Earnhardt, Johnson and Jeff Gordon combined to lead 556 of the 740 laps at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway that season. Gordon won three poles, Johnson scored three top fives and Earnhardt led the way with two wins and four top-three finishes in a car that he affectionately named Amelia, after Amelia Earhart.

Amelia was back for the 2016 Daytona 500, and HMS picked up right where it left off as Elliott won the pole and Earnhardt reigned in his qualifying race.

This year, however, Toyota looked like a significant threat to the HMS hegemony. Matt Kenseth won the outside pole with the second-fastest qualifying time, but he, Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. were forced to start in the rear after a last-lap crash in the second qualifying race sent them to backup cars. In said qualifying race, Busch and Kenseth combined to lead 58 of the 60 laps, with Busch taking the checkered flag.

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On race day, Elliott, Kenseth, Earnhardt and Busch made up the first two rows, but Kenseth was relegated to the back along with Johnson and Truex. Carl Edwards started 10th, while Hamlin was the lowest qualifier of the four Joe Gibbs cars in 11th. Green flag.

At first, it was a repeat of 2015. Elliott led the first three laps until Earnhardt took the lead on lap four, pacing the next 14. Things were going well for HMS until disaster strikes on lap 19: Elliott got loose and spun out of the exit of turn 4, and while he kept the car off the wall, the No. 24’s splitter dug into the infield grass and totaled the nose. The No. 24 team made repairs and sent Elliott back out 40 laps down, but his first Daytona 500 was over as soon as it began with a 37th-place finish.

Meanwhile, all the Toyotas began working their way toward the front. Hamlin worked to second and first connected nose-to-tail with Busch on lap six. Truex and Kenseth started shotgun on the field, and they had marched to the top 15 by lap nine.

Busch took the lead from Earnhardt right before Elliott’s crash, and Hamlin inherited the lead under caution for the first restart of the day on lap 26. And it was here where Toyota flexed its muscle at the rest of the field.

During that first pit cycle, Hamlin came out first, with Busch third, Truex seventh and Kenseth ninth. The four Toyotas were in a line together, with Johnson the lone Chevy outlier in fifth. The five drivers pulled away from the outside line, and when Truex spit Johnson out of the inside line on lap 30, there were four Toyotas connected nose-to-tail at the front of the field for the first time all day.

And that restart was the catalyst for the Toyota onslaught that was yet to come. With a freight train of fast Camrys lined at the front of the inside line, the speed mismatch was so great that the outside line was suffocated and unable to challenge the Toyotas on the inside.

In superspeedway racing, the old adage was to make friends where you can find them. It didn’t matter if the car behind was a different manufacturer or a driver one had a history with; if they were able to push them the front, drivers took the help.

That’s what the rest of the field had to try against the Toyota Express. All the drivers on the outside tried to form enough of a run to clear the Toyotas on the inside, but the efforts were unsuccessful. Even Earnhardt, who had the car that dominated superspeedways in 2015, was unable to make it back to the front.

Hamlin led 34 consecutive after taking the lead on lap 24, and he only lost the lead to Johnson, who took two tires under the second caution on lap 60. This time, with two Toyotas on both the inside and outside, the inside line did not break away from the pack. On lap 69, now-commentator Gordon wondered aloud if the strength of Hamlin and the Toyotas was the reason for the inside lane’s power on the last run.

The last lap that Johnson led was lap 77, and while he spent the time out front, the four Toyotas regrouped on the outside line and passed the No. 48 on lap 78. And just as Gordon had theorized, the foursome led by Busch ran away from the rest of the pack.

Johnson’s time in the lead was the last time all day that Chevrolet or Ford led the Daytona 500 without the aid of a pit cycle. From lap 78 on, Toyota took over the reins and never looked back. Busch held the lead until a hard crash between Chris Buescher and Matt DiBenedetto on lap 92.

Hamlin took the point once again under caution on lap 95, and with Toyota occupying the first two rows for the lap 100 restart, Truex and Busch on the inside line laid back in order to let Hamlin and Kenseth in. The restart plan was initially met with skepticism by Hamlin, but the four Toyotas were united once again as Hamlin led 60 of the next 61 laps. The Toyotas pulled the same maneuver on restarts the rest of the race.

Hamlin surrendered the lead to pit and lap 156, and when the cycle was complete, it was Kenseth who emerged with the lead on lap 160.

The only ensuing interruptions were a lap 170 crash by Earnhardt (who lost control out of turn 4 in a similar way to Elliott at the start) and a lap 184 crash that saw Danica Patrick get all four wheels off the ground after hitting a paved embankment in the middle of the backstretch grass.

The field was set up for a 12-lap dash to the end. Once again, it was Kenseth who found himself out front, with Truex, Busch, Hamlin and now Edwards (who suffered damage in an early crash) lined up behind them. Three laps to go, and the quintet was in the same setup with no serious challenges from Kevin Harvick, who led the outside lane.

Kenseth was going for his third Daytona 500 win and his first since 2012. Truex and Busch were vying for their first Daytona 500 wins ever. Hamlin, who had led a race-high 94 laps up to that point, was gunning for the same.

But when was the time for the drivers behind Kenseth to make a move? Go too early and they risked breaking up the Toyota dominance at the front of the field. Go too late and they weren’t going to win. And if one of them pulled out of line, who was to say they would get help from another teammate?

Truex and Busch stayed in line, but it was Hamlin — who was predicted by the announcers as the first one to make a move — who bailed to lead the outside lane, with Harvick in toe. For the first two turns of lap 200, it looked as if Hamlin had run out of time. But as the field hit the backstretch and entered turns 3 and 4, Hamlin stormed past everyone.

His car was fast enough to challenge the Toyota trio out front, and in a scene reminiscent of Kenseth pushing Harvick on the backstretch to pull even with Mark Martin on the last lap of the 2007 Daytona 500, Harvick pushed Hamlin with a full head of steam to challenge Kenseth.

Kenseth tried to block Hamlin by moving to the outside lane; Hamlin countered by crossing under to the inside. The two had a near-disaster of a collision that saw Kenseth get loose after turning down into the right front of Hamlin’s No. 11. Kenseth managed to save the car, but he lost all his momentum and could only helplessly watch the field go by in the trioval as he crossed the stripe in 14th.

The contact between Hamlin and Kenseth allowed Truex to duck under Hamlin to take the lead of the inside line as the field exited turn 4. It was a dogfight as Hamlin and Truex were neck-and-neck as they roared toward the finish line for the 200th and final time.

In the end, it was Hamlin who nosed out Truex to win by one one-hundredth of a second in the closest Daytona 500 finish ever.

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The win was the first Daytona 500 triumph for Hamlin, and he added two more crowns in 2019 and 2020. Kenseth was unable to win a third in 2017, which proved to be his last start in the Great American Race. The runner-up finish is Truex’s best result in the 500 after 19 attempts, and it remains as his only top-five finish. Busch improved his third-place result in 2016 by finishing second behind Hamlin in 2019, but he too remains searching for his first 500 after an 0-for-18 start.

Daytona spearheaded a year of Toyota dominance, as Edwards, Truex, Busch, Kenseth and Hamlin combined to win 16 of the 36 races for Toyota’s first manufacturers title.

While the 2016 Daytona 500 itself wasn’t that memorable outside of the final-lap dash and finish, it is notable for being one of the catalysts of present-day superspeedway racing strategy.

JGR, Furniture Row Racing and Toyota were far from the first teams and manufacturers to team up in superspeedway races. But they did it in such dominating fashion that the rest of the teams and manufacturers in NASCAR took notice in the following races.

Rewatch a superspeedway race in the years since and you’ll see coordinated pit stops by manufacturers in addition to the usual teamwork. If you don’t notice it on your own accord, the broadcast and announcing crew will give plenty of reminders throughout the race about it.

In the first 20 laps of the 2016 Daytona 500, there were no such mentions of teamwork; the drivers went where they could find room in those early laps. Same with pitting together during the lone set of green flag pit stops, and when the Toyotas first lined up on lap 30, it was not until lap 38 that the broadcast acknowledged that there were four Toyotas leading the inside line.

Bits and pieces of that teamwork was present before then, but Toyota exceled at it so much that other manufacturers and teams had no choice but to step up their game.

For better or worse, the 58th Daytona 500 changed the game of superspeedway racing.

About the author

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Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch and is a three-year veteran of the site. His weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” He also writes commentary, contributes to podcasts, edits articles and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage.

Can find on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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