A photo finish is defined as a close finish of a race in which the winner is identifiable only from a photograph taken as the competitors cross the finish line. This was the case for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) race known as the Daytona 500 on February 21, 2016.
The Daytona 500 takes place in Daytona Beach, Florida at the Daytona International Speedway. The race track is 2.5 miles long and a 500-mile race requires 200 laps to complete. The first ever race was in 1959 won by Lee Petty. It took three hours and forty-one minutes to decide the winner. The average speed was 135 miles per hour, with the winner taking home $19,000. Since 1982, the Daytona 500 has been the race to start the season. Even though there is a championship race in November down in Homestead, Florida, the Daytona 500 is considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR. It’s revered as the most prestigious race of the year.
The previous Sunday before the big race, drivers go a few laps around trying to obtain the fastest time possible. The winner is the “pole leader”, with the other drivers rank in order based on their time. A rookie by the name of Chase Elliot was the pole leader to start the race. He is the son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliot. Having that distinction and position to start a race, was a lot of pressure on the youngster in his first Daytona 500. The saying “pressure bust a pipe” was evident by lap number four when Dale Earnhardt Jr took the lead. Elliot would battle back to third place by lap number nine. However, in lap number 19, he would try to get out of the middle of the pack and spin out. His car would come to rest in the grass infield, ending his chances of winning the race. Who would emerge to take the lead?
After a couple drivers went back and forth for leading a lap or two, Denny Hamlin would take over from lap 24 to 57. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch would lead multiple laps until lap 95. That’s when Hamlin would assert his dominance on the track until lap 155. No one in Daytona 500 history had led that many laps (95) and went on to win. With that being said, Matt Kenseth seemed like a clear bet to win when he took the lead on lap 160. Kenseth was in lead on the final lap coming into the final turn #4. He went up to block Hamlin and in doing so, allowed Hamlin to go low and around him. After that, it setup a quick sprint to the finish line between Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
Denny Hamlin won by one-hundredth (0.01) of a second over Truex. He won by four inches! That is the closet margin of victory ever in the race’s 58 years of history. No knew who won until the replay showed the photo finish. It was a good day for Joe Gibbs, the owner of the winning #11 car. It was the first time he has won in 23 years. It was Toyota’s first ever win at the Daytona 500. Hamlin would average a speed of 157 miles per hour, and collect $1.7 million dollars. Not a bad pay day for three hours and ten minutes of work, and a photo finish.