The Sprint Unlimited: Daytona excitement: The first race of the NASCAR season

 The Sprint Unlimited was a wild affair with wrecks, intense racing and an exciting finish. Check out this spectacular gallery of all the action from Daytona International Speedway.

Almost the last man standing: Hamlin wins wreck-filled Sprint Unlimited

Denny Hamlin won Saturday’s bizarre and wreck-marred Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway, the kick-off event to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Hamlin dominated the night in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, leading six times for 27 laps, to win over the Penske Racing Ford of Brad Keselowski and JGR teammate Kyle Busch. Joey Logano was fourth in a second Penske entry, while Kevin Harvick completed the top five in his competition behind the wheel of his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.

It was Hamlin’s second victory in the event, the first coming as a rookie in 2006.

“The best car won, that’s for sure,” said Hamlin. “… We had a great car all weekend.”

nascar-sprint-unlimited_small The Sprint Unlimited: Daytona excitement: The first race of the NASCAR season

Hamlin, who missed four races with a broken back last year, said he’s hoping to use the victory to rebound from last year’s disappointments.

“It’s a great win,” said Hamlin. “You love starting Speedweeks like this. In 2006, it kind of spring-boarded my career into a great year. (In) 2009, winning Homestead spring-boarded us into a great 2010 and a championship run. There’s no negatives that come out of a day like today.”

Third-place finisher Busch was definitely impressed by his teammate’s winning effort.

“Denny is on a mission, man,” Busch said. “… He’s on fire right now. He’s good. He’s fast. He’s ready.”

Run under a full moon in central Florida, the 75-lap battle was one of the strangest races in recent memory, with less than half the field going the full – and short – distance and the pace car catching fire on track prior to the final 20-lap third segment of the race.

A Sprint fan vote set the format for the race, with 30 laps in the first segment, 25 in the second and 20 in the last segment. Also by fan vote, the starting grid was set by practice speeds, which put Hamlin on the pole, flanked by Jamie McMurray.

Hamlin won the opening segment, with six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson getting loose and crashing at the exit of Turn 4 on Lap 30, ending his race for the evening. It was Johnson’s third consecutive DNF in this event.

Then on Lap 36 in the second segment, there was a nine-car accident, with Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth making contact just past the frontstretch and triggering a massive scrum behind them. Tony Stewart, in his first race back since last August, made hard contact but got out of his car under his own power, while Danica Patrick was hit hard by boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., knocking them both out of the race.

“It’s just part of it,” Stewart said after being released from the track’s infield care center. “We’re back at Daytona.” 

When the race restarted on Lap 41 after an 11:25 minute red-flag period, just nine of the 18 starters were left on the track. Hamlin held off Keselowski to win the second segment.

The final element of the fan vote called for a mandatory two-tire pit stop prior to the third and final segment. Hamlin came off pit road ahead and led heading into the closing 20 laps of the race.

But before the field could take the green, the pace car burst into flames and had to be pulled off the track, a battery pack in the truck igniting and causing a mini-inferno.