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When push came to shove, Denny Hamlin moved teammates himself to win the Daytona 500

In the closing laps of the Daytona 500, it became readily apparent a Toyota-backed team was going to win. Denny Hamlin made an aggressive move to ensure it was his.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

To win the biggest race of your career, sometimes you have to perform unseemly tasks. If that means keeping your foot on the accelerator and shoving a teammate out of the lead on the final lap, then so be it.

Any hard feelings can be dealt with later, because there is a trophy to be won, consequences be damned. Even if there was previously a gentlemen's agreement to sacrifice one's personal goals for the greater good.

As the laps wound down during Sunday's Daytona 500, it became increasingly apparent one of five Toyota-backed drivers was going to win. Four of those represented Joe Gibbs Racing: Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing was the fifth member of the group.

Further blurring the lines is the fact JGR and FRR are in a freshly formed technical alliance, which sees JGR supplying FRR with cars, parts and data. That partnership essentially makes Truex a de facto teammate of the four he was racing at Daytona International Speedway.

"I figured it was five to go that it was every man for himself," Busch said.

But teammates, alliances and other niceties are far from consideration when a Daytona 500 victory is on the line. Kenseth was holding the point as the laps whittled away, and because of the intricacies of restrictor-plate racing, he was seemingly in control because of how the leader can cut off the momentum of someone attempting to pass by moving in front as they approach.

However, this is NASCAR's marquee event.

Although Hamlin professes he would have been content with another Toyota driver winning, when opportunity arose he wasted no time taking advantage. His chance came entering Turn 3 on the white flag lap when he put forth a charge to Kenseth's outside.

Seeing Hamlin coming with a push from Kevin Harvick, Kenseth knew what needed to be done and swung his No. 20 car up the track to block Hamlin. Except Hamlin wasn't lifting. So when Kenseth cut Hamlin off, contact ensued sending Kenseth sliding backward while Hamlin veered left and continued speeding toward the checkered flag.

"I just cranked it as far left as I could," Hamlin said. "Luckily the door didn't close before we got in there."

All Hamlin had to do now was edge Truex, who was alongside him. A Toyota driver was finally going to win the Daytona 500 after nine years of futility. But which one?

In the closest finish in the 58-year history of the Great American Race, the answer was Hamlin by 0.01 seconds. Easily the biggest victory of his career.

"It's the pinnacle of my career, for sure," Hamlin said. "I haven't got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself. ... It's so awesome."

That Toyota's armada of drivers would work together throughout the afternoon was a plan devised in the days prior. The five would try to align themselves as drafting partners, form a stranglehold on the top positions, and then battle it out for the win.

Rarely do plans come together, especially at Daytona. But on this day the strategy worked. Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kenseth combined to lead 156 of 200 laps, their dominance so apparent that Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson began sensing by halfway it may be the car maker's day.

"We realized that our five cars working together could truly do something special on Sunday," Wilson said. "But think about how many plans you put in place before the race as momentous as this — you can't control what you can't control. Most of the time those plans go by the wayside.

"But our teams, our drivers, had the discipline and the trust in each other to execute that plan to a T."

Even among teammates, for every winner there is a loser. In this instance, there were two who felt the sting the most.

Kenseth did everything he could to fend off Hamlin, and the pain of disappointment was obvious the moment he stepped out of his car. He had won the Daytona 500 twice previously, but a third would have moved Kenseth into select company as only the sixth driver to do so.

And, can one ever have enough Harley J. Earl Trophies on their mantel?

"It's really frustrating and really disappointing," Kenseth said. "I feel like I let my team down for (the duration of Daytona Speedweeks) and today was no exception to that."

Being on the wrong side of history is something Truex will now have to compartmentalize, too.

"It hurts a little bit, but a lot to be proud of, for sure," Truex said.

If Truex is grasping for silver linings, his resolve to work for Toyota's betterment earned the admiration of the JGR camp, who praised his commitment to the plan. Hamlin, Wilson and Joe Gibbs all lavished praise, and Truex admittedly said endearing himself to his new quasi-teammates was a priority over the final laps.

What's unknown is if years down the road Truex will still feel the same. Hamlin, too, at one point was steadfast about sacrificing his self-interests if a Toyota driver could win.

Yet, when the prize was before his eyes Hamlin pounced. Why? Because it's Daytona, a race you do whatever it takes to win.