AVONDALE, Ariz.—Once Denny Hamlin captured the lead at ISM Raceway, there wasn’t a single competitor that could catch the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota.
Hamlin led all but one of the final 132 laps en route to his sixth win of the season. Despite a late-race caution, he held off teammate Kyle Busch over the final three laps and extended his lead to .377-seconds at the finish.
Hamlin’s second win at Phoenix—and the 37th of his Cup career—advanced the driver to the Championship 4 Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway for just the second time in his career.
“I knew from the drop of the green, I had the best car,” said Hamlin, who had lapped all but six cars. “One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that. Fast car. But, yeah, I pushed for all I had. I mean, that's all I got. Once we got the big lead there, a little over 10 seconds, I just kind of sat there. I got to thinking about if the caution does come out, I want to lap as many as I can.”
Ryan Blaney, who was under the weather, finished third followed by Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
Hamlin became the third Joe Gibbs Racing driver to advance to the final four along with Truex and Busch. Harvick is the lone representative from Ford.
Kyle Busch started from the pole and led the first 69 laps. He had lapped 21 cars prior to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecking in Turn 4 to trigger the first caution. Keselowski and William Byron remained on the track while the rest of the lead lap cars pitted on Lap 70. When the race returned to green on Lap 73, Hamlin vaulted from the second row to the lead and held on for the Stage 1 win.
After the first 75 laps, Logano was still securely in the top four. When the second stage began on Lap 82, Hamlin struggled on the restart while battling Chase Elliott. That opened the door for Logano to take the lead on Lap 83. In clean air —and with no caution—Logano held serve for the Stage 2 win. Hamlin finished second.
Logano won the race off pit road and elected to take the high line when the race returned to green on Lap 160. As stout as the No. 22 Team Penske Ford was in Stage 2, the car’s handling disappeared dramatically. Although Hamlin and Elliott were battling for second, Logano couldn’t make up ground. Hamlin had moved ahead of Elliott when he spun in Turn 2 on Lap 167 and destroyed his car for the second week in a row.
“It's just a continuation of our first two weeks, unfortunately,” said Elliott, who finished 39th. “I hate it for our NAPA group. We had a decent NAPA Chevy today. It was really tough in traffic to catch guys and then pass and whatnot. But, I feel like we were in a good position to run solid.
“I'm not sure why we had a tire go down. I think that's what happened, at least; it seemed like it. It's unfortunate. Like I said, these last three weeks have been pretty rough. So, hopefully, Homestead goes better and we can get prepared good for next season and get a good notebook for next year.”
Four laps after the race restarted on Lap 173, Hamlin passed Logano and it was game over. Despite Logano’s speed in the second stage, the remaining six Playoff drivers drove by the No. 22 Ford over the next 40 circuits. Hamlin then lapped the defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion on Lap 238.
“I went from a car that could lead and win a stage and run really well, and from what they told me, it was an air pressure adjustment made it go from a winning car to can't stay on the lead lap, and one of the tightest things I've ever driven,” Logano said. “I don't really understand it. It doesn't make any sense. You change tires and change a half pint of air, that sounds ridiculous. It is what it is.
“Just wasn't our year to make it, I guess. But we'll fight for fifth, I guess, in points for this year, and we'll move on. It stinks. It hurts a little bit, but we'll live.
The only fly in Hamlin’s ointment was John Hunter Nemechek’s wreck in Turn 1 on Lap 303. What went through his mind once the caution was called?
“Shit,” Hamlin said. “That was it.”
Crew chief Chris Gabehart called a two-tire audible to keep Hamlin out front. Blaney’s team also elected to take two tires and the No. 12 Ford lined up alongside the No. 11 Toyota for the restart with three laps to decide the contest.
“Luckily it all worked out, for sure,” Hamlin said. “Especially I think having the 12 under there with two tires there, as well, gave me a little buffer there.
“If it was Kyle (Busch), I'm not sure I would have held him off, but I would have damn sure tried.”
Although some questioned whether team orders came into play with Busch being able to lock into the Championship 4 on points and Hamlin needed to win, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota said he was racing for the win.
“I was racing for me at that point,” Busch said. “Denny was on the outside, had control of the restart and everything. I was trying to get by the 12 and do what I could. I heard for a moment we were three‑wide in the corner, and I lost front grip because I went that low and just got dirt on my tires.
“Once it recovered and I got up off the corner, luckily I was ahead of the 12 already, but I was behind the 11. Once that happened I couldn't really get close enough to the 11. Two tires is better than four.”
Hamlin, who reached the final four for the first time since NASCAR introduced this Playoff format in 2014, says he’s playing with house money right now and plans to enjoy it.
“We're going to have fun,” Hamlin said. “It's my birthday weekend. Homestead is always my birthday weekend. I wanted to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one. In 2010 I shut everyone out. Like I didn't do any of the birthday stuff. I didn't hang out with anyone. I really didn't respond to calls or texts or anything like that. But I'm not going to be that way I don't think this time around because I just am not going to change who I am.
“If I want to go out for a late dinner, I'm going to go out for a late dinner. It's what I do every single week, and we won six races and had success. It's not going to make me do better if I go into the hotel room and lock myself in at 8:00. It didn't in 2010.
“I'm going to enjoy the moment. All you can ask for at the start of the year is ask for an opportunity for a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete. It's goal accomplished. Now we just got to go out there and do it.”