Today, Denny Hamlin is a seasoned vet in the Cup Series, with nearly 20 years of experience in NASCAR's highest level. The longtime racer for Joe Gibbs Racing has seen Victory Lane at a number of major events, including three Daytona 500s, three Southern 500s, one Coca-Cola 600, and one All-Star Race. His 48 wins make him tied for 16th on the all-time NASCAR Cup Series wins list. But, long before he was the Denny Hamlin we all know today, he was a fresh-faced, 25-year-old rookie in the Nextel Cup Series.
Denny would make a solid first impression during his first full-time Cup season in 2006, winning the Busch Clash that year (back when it was known as the Budweiser Shootout) and becoming the first rookie driver to do so. Before making NASCAR history though, he would have to best a fellow JGR teammate who had just won his second Cup Series championship.
WATCH: Full Race Recap of 2006 Budweiser Shootout
Postponed from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon due to rain, the 2006 Budweiser Shootout was broken into two segments: a 20-lap segment and 50-lap second segment, with the two segments being divided by a 10-minute intermission. The first segment of the Cup race really got going around 14 laps in, when Brian Vickers hooked Jamie McMurray, who in turn collided with Ryan Newman. This triggered the "Big One," with Vickers, McMurray, Newman, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs, and Dale Jarrett getting caught up in the massive wreck. The segment ended under caution, and Ken Schrader was the ultimate winner.
The second segment was categorized by a number of lead changes, with Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Michael Waltrip, and Jamie McMurray all leading at one point. The really neck-and-neck battle, however, was between Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, Denny's JGR teammate, with only a few laps to go. Stewart, who had already won two Cup Series titles but notably struggled at Daytona over the years, ended up stealing the lead from Hamlin with only four laps to go in the race. But, the final caution (brought out after Ryan Newman blew a tire down the backstretch and left debris on the track) essentially saved Denny from the clutches of defeat. On the restart, Hamlin stole the lead from Stewart on his way to becoming the first rookie driver to win the Busch Clash.
Hamlin's strong debut would be a good sign for the rest of his season, as the Tampa, Florida native racked up two more wins and an additional six top-five finishes on the way to a third-place finish in the Cup standings and Rookie of the Year honors. Despite not having a championship to his name, it's hard to imagine that Denny won't eventually earn a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And, to think: his journey among NASCAR's best all started that fateful day in Daytona over 15 years ago.
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