Even though Denny Hamlin got the win in Wednesday night’s rain-shortened Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway, the lasting image from the second NASCAR Cup Series race within a four-day span at the Lady in Black came minutes earlier.
As cars circled under caution 26 laps short of the scheduled 228, Chase Elliott stood near the end of the frontstretch, giving a prolonged middle-finger salute to Kyle Busch, the driver who had just wrecked him and ruined his chances for victory.
Elliott’s finger followed the No. 18 Toyota in much the manner that a photographer shoots a panorama. It was a gesture of anger and disappointment for the incident that took him out of second place and out of the race.
Hamlin was leading at the time, and Busch made a move to the inside of Elliott that didn’t work. Desperate to squeeze back into line ahead of fourth-place Kevin Harvick, Sunday’s race winner, Busch miscalculated, hooking the bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet and sending it careening into the inside wall.
With significant damage to the right front of his car, Busch continued on and claimed the runner-up position when NASCAR called the race after 208 laps were complete.
“There’s no question—I know I made a mistake and just misjudged the gap,” Busch said. “When we were racing there with the 11 (Hamlin) and the 9 (Elliott), I had a run on the bottom. I knew he was there, and I knew I had to get in line as quick as I could. In doing so, I watched him and his momentum that was going by me and I tried to look up in the mirror and see where Harvick was to get in, and I just misjudged it.
“I made a mistake and clipped the 9 there and just spun him into the wall. I hate it for him and his guys. I’ve got too many friends over there on that team to do anything like that on purpose. I’ve raced Chase since he was a kid and never had any issues whatsoever. It was just a bad mistake on my part.
“They’re upset. They’re mad. I’m not just going to fix it and we’re going to go have ice cream tomorrow. Obviously, they’re going to have to dwell on it, and the repercussions of it I’m sure I’m going to have later on down the road.”
Harvick was third, followed by Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones. Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson, Matt DiBenedetto and Martin Truex Jr. finished out the top 10.
The victory was the second of the season for the 2020 Daytona 500 winner, who won for the third time at Darlington and the 39th in his career. Hamlin is the 14th driver to win three or more races at the Track Too Tough to Tame.
“Yeah, I’ve got my happy face on,” said Hamlin, who climbed from his car wearing a protective mask that featured a broad, toothy grin as part of its design. “I made sure I brought it with me today… I was pretty happy with how it all turned out.
“Why wouldn’t you want this mug on the trophy again? This is a driver’s race track. You can move around. You can do different things to make your car handle. We got it right today.”
After starting fourth, Clint Bowyer soon established his No. 14 Ford as the car to beat in the early stages of the second Cup race to be run after a 10-week hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After a Lap 31 restart, Bowyer made short work of Bubba Wallace, who had stayed out on old tires, and held the top spot for 53 laps, winning Stage 1 on Lap 60 for his first Playoff point of the season.
Varying pit strategies under multiple cautions shuffled the field, but Bowyer regained the lead on Lap 111, when Daniel Suarez pulled onto pit road under caution. Bowyer stayed out front through the end of Stage 2 on Lap 125, making him the first driver this season to sweep the first two stages of a Cup race.
But Bowyer’s race fell apart in the final stage. He lost the lead to a bold three-wide move on the part of Erik Jones on Lap 134. On Lap 190, Bowyer clipped the outside wall and four laps later spun in Turn 1 with a flat tire and fell back to 24th in the running order.
Bowyer’s spin brought the 10th caution, and when the field restarted Hamlin held the top spot—for good as it turned out.