DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Given what Denny Hamlin overcame last season, it's no wonder he won a race of attrition to start the new year.
Hamlin proved Saturday night he's back from the back injury that ruined 2013. He missed five early races with a fractured vertebra, then spent the rest of the year driving with discomfort in a failed desperate bid to save his season.
He didn't make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time in his career, and picked up his only win of the year in the season-ending race at Homestead.
Now, he has a win in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited to start the season and he's not looking in the rearview mirror.
"Homestead kind of came out of the blue, especially how our year had went," he said. "We started feeling better. I realized after the win in Homestead, how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel. When I feel comfortable in the car ... I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner."
On Saturday night it meant making a late charge through a decimated field to grab his second career victory in the Speedweeks opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Only eight cars were running at the end — the fewest since seven in 1981 — on a bizarre night that saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. end girlfriend Danica Patrick's race and the Chevrolet pace car catch fire.
"When you think you've seen it all, then you see that. It's never-ending," second-place finisher Brad Keselowski said about the pace car fire. "I thought it was race car. Someone said it was the pace car, and I couldn't help but start laughing."
It was Hamlin who got the last laugh, in Victory Lane.
Hamlin charged to the front right before he took the white flag by diving to the inside and sailing past the few cars on the track. He then drove away in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
"That was survival of the fittest for sure," said Hamlin, also the winner as a rookie in 2006. "With three to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack. It's really hard to get runs, but this car was phenomenal. You saw it those last couple of laps."
This year's race had a heavy fan involvement as sponsor Sprint allowed fans to vote for various aspects of the race. Among them was the starting order, how the segments were split and how the cars lined up in the final segment.