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Denny Hamlin got dinged, but he came out on top of the Unlimited

Denny Hamlin was able to stay out front on a late restart to win Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Are you hurting?

That seemed to be the prevailing question on Saturday night for select drivers after the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

There's good reason for that. It's an exhibition, and no driver wants to go into the Daytona 500 not feeling his or her best.

Even the winner, Denny Hamlin, had to answer that question. He had offseason ACL surgery and a month ago said he was only 50 percent.

"The knee is good," Hamlin said, fresh from Victory Lane. "I'm about 75 percent. I'm not anywhere close to doing anything sports related for a while. In the car, I'm good. Any time we have any kind of surgeries or anything, usually we win the next race.

"We're just continuing that trend."

For others, they weren't in celebratory moods even though they felt OK.

Brian Vickers, in his first race since March after being sidelined for the fourth time because of the recurrence of blood clots or related surgeries, crashed and tore up the front and rear of his car while subbing for the injured Tony Stewart.

"It was a hard hit," Vickers said. "They are never fun. You blow a right rear tire, you hit driver side at 200 [mph], but that is part of racing. That is all the risk we take. I'm fine."

Kyle Busch, injured at Daytona last year with a broken leg and broken foot, had to limp his heavily damaged car to the garage seven laps before the finish.

"I'm all right," said Busch, who had surgery in December to remove the hardware from his leg and foot. "No big deal. It wasn't that big of a hit or anything like that. It tore up the car pretty good. It's part of it."

Hamlin was among those with a damaged race car after an early run-in with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but his crew kept him on the lead lap while repairing his right door.

Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited by leading the final 16 laps, cruising to the finish line when the caution flag came out on the second lap of a green-white-checkered restart that served as NASCAR's first experiment with its new overtime procedure.

The new procedure does not require the leader to complete a full lap on an "overtime" restart. Instead, the leader needs to just reach a designated line -- typically on the backstretch, about half a lap -- on the first lap following the restart for the race to be official if the caution comes out.

It didn't come into play as the caution came out on the second lap of the two-lap overtime dash to the finish. It was no surprise NASCAR threw the caution to freeze the field, as several cars had hard hits on the backstretch, and NASCAR wanted to get safety vehicles dispatched even though the field was already past the wreckage.

Hamlin certainly was a deserving winner. He had one of the best cars all night, leading 39 laps overall. And he had a perfectly called race from new Sprint Cup crew chief Mike Wheeler.

"That probably gives Denny a lot of confidence that his crew chief built him a good car," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races last year with then-new crew chief Greg Ives.

"It has good speed. ... It builds a lot of confidence between you and your crew chief and obviously puts you both in a great mood the rest of the week. They can carry that momentum."

Wheeler had served as Hamlin's engineer for a decade before serving as an Xfinity Series crew chief last year and winning four races, including three with Hamlin.

"This is big for me and him," Hamlin said. "It's not like he's an unknown and I need to get to know 'Wheels.' We've been together for so long. We lent him to the Xfinity shop for a year."

Hamlin certainly knows how to wheel it around Daytona. His three Sprint Unlimited victories are tied for second most in event history. It also marked his sixth career win at Daytona and the third consecutive for a Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

"Denny is great at the plate tracks," Earnhardt said. "He's very aggressive, and I like his style. I think his style is conducive to winning at the plate tracks and that's obvious by what he did tonight."

Earnhardt, considered one of the favorites going in, didn't have much of a chance to show what he could do. He was collected when Vickers had a flat tire and spun into him. Earnhardt finished four laps down after his team repaired the passenger door, which was ripped apart and needed the crash-absorbing foam to be replaced.

"If the car can be out there, you need to be out there," Earnhardt said about running in an exhibition race several laps down. "We learned that we need to understand how to fix the car better [in that situation].

"If you quit, you don't feel good. It makes me sick inside. If the car can be out there running, you should be out there."

For most of the night, it was a race between Brad Keselowski and Hamlin, who combined to lead all but 14 laps of the race. Keselowski was thwarted first by debris on his grill and later when he had little help and got midpack, seeing his car torn up on the final lap.

Ford has a new front nose that they had hoped would decrease the amount of debris that would attach to it during the race.

"It looked like it was construction debris out there," Keselowski said after the first race at the track since the completion of the new grandstand renovations. "It was big sheets of plastic. I don't think it would have mattered what manufacturer it was. It was one of those days."

The lingering question will be whether Hamlin and Keselowski were just that good or a product of the current restrictor-plate package.

"It's typical plate racing," Busch said. "It's kind of hard to pass. I wish it was a little bit easier. It seems like the runs are so slow that you can't get a big enough run off the guy to make a pass because they can block you too soon."

The drivers should learn more on Thursday in their Daytona 500 qualifying races. Until then, they'll take their damaged cars, and probably some damaged egos, and make repairs.

As Hamlin celebrates.

"When the cars were closing that fast, you've almost got to anticipate where they're going to go or else you're going to get wrecked," Hamlin said. "Luckily it worked out for us. This is a leader-driven race, and we were able to bring it home."