Denny Hamlin avoided mayhem and mishaps by riding around the back of the pack at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, but was able to contend for the win when it counted.
Although Hamlin led 24 of the first 26 laps, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota dropped to the rear of the field where he rode out the majority of Yellawood 500 until the closing laps.
Matt DiBenedetto led the remaining 22 cars on lead lap into double overtime, but coming to out of Turn 4, Hamlin dove below the yellow and grabbed the lead—and his seventh win in 2020.
“Just a lot of attrition,” Hamlin said. “We just played the strategy and the numbers game to run in the back until we were locked in. Just things worked out. We finally got one back. This one was unexpected to say the least, but proud of this whole FedEx team, Toyota and everyone at JGR for bringing great race cars.
“Really excited about this win. This was unexpected for sure.”
DiBenedetto finished just inches behind Hamlin but he was penalized for forcing William Byron below the yellow line and scored 21st. Chase Elliott, who was running third on the last lap, was also penalized for going below the yellow line to improve his position and scored 22nd.
NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller said the call was “pretty clear‑cut.”
“The 21 (DiBenedetto) hung a left, drove those guys down below the line. We called that twice on the 22 car during the race, so nothing different there. On the 24 (Byron) and the 11 being down there, I mean, in our judgment they were down there to avoid a wreck. On the 9 (Elliott), I mean, he obviously just pulled out and passed underneath the yellow line.
“I think all of it was, from our vantage point, I think fairly clear‑cut.”
Or was it? NASCAR changed the finish once again and penalized Chris Buescher instead of Elliott. Once the results were reset, Erik Jones was scored second followed by Ty Dillon, Byron, Elliott, Ryan Newman, Tyler Reddick, John Hunter Nemechek, Brennan Poole and Ryan Preece.
The first stage contained five cautions—and the elimination of the first Playoff contender when Joey Logano plowed into Alex Bowman, who took out Aric Almirola on the backstretch. Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney were also collected in the melee. Almirola’s No. 10 Ford was terminal, ending an eight-race Talladega streak of top-10 finishes.
After extensive repairs to Bowman, Logano and Busch, the three drivers returned to the track. However, the defending Cup champion’s run was short-lived after previous damage to the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota triggered a tire rub. Busch’s left front gave way on Lap 68 while running 29th. Hamlin received damage in the melee. Busch restarted 32nd followed by Hamlin as Buescher led the field to green on Lap 74.
The seventh caution ignited when Blaney, who won the last two Talladega contests, blew a tire in Turn 3—a result of earlier damage from the Bowman/Logano shunt. Elliott remained in control of the point until he was passed by Johnson momentarily on Lap 107.
One circuit later, spotter Brett Griffin told Bowyer, “Push, push, push.” Unfortunately, he nailed Jimmie Johnson in the wrong spot and sent the No. 48 spinning into Kurt Busch. As Busch turned into the nose of Cole Custer, the No. 41 Ford vaulted the Ganassi driver airborne. NASCAR red-flagged the race on Lap 109 for 10 minutes and 27 seconds to clean up the 11-car wreck. Kurt Busch’s day ended along with Bowyer, Custer, Brendan Gaughan and Daniel Suarez. Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson limped to pit road.
“You’ve got to go," said Bowyer, who dropped to 11th in the standings. "You’ve got to push him. The 22 and the 21 were trying and obviously, they gave up on it for some reason. As soon as I got to him I push him in the front and the whole rear of the car went down and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and before I know it he was tank swapping all over the place. I don’t know if that was how they had their cars built or whatever, but as soon as you got close to him he was all over the place.
"Obviously didn’t mean to wreck him, but you’re going hard and three-wide and people are behind you pushing. I was hoping he would save it, but he didn’t and we all wrecked.”
Elliott led the field to green, but Logano passed him on the Lap 114 restart. Truex moved to the point for the first time on Lap 117. With three laps remaining in the stage, Logano’s spotter TJ Majors told the driver he had to serve a drive-thru penalty for forcing Matt DiBenedetto below the yellow line.
NASCAR rescinded the initial directive and told the No. 22 Ford he would lose any stage points for his finish and would need to start at the rear of the field for the start of the final stage. He was running sixth at the time but dropped to 11th. Truex won the second stage.
Keselowski grabbed the lead on the restart but the race would become a battle between Fords and Chevrolets over the next 20 laps before debris from damage to Johnson’s car set off the 10th caution. Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports traded the point with Bubba Wallace becoming a player over the second half. Wallace took the high line and the lead on Lap180. On Lap 183, as he attempted to come down the track, Wallace collided with Preece on the backstretch, while Joey Gase spun behind and sent the race into overtime. That provided Hamlin the opportunity to come out of hibernation fuel up.
The race restarted on Lap 188 with Logano at the point, but he was penalized again for forcing the inside lane drivers below the line. Coming into the tri-oval, Tyler Reddick turned Kyle Busch and collected Logano, Truex, Bowman and Kevin Harvick in the process before Elliott could take the white flag.
After the second red flag, the race went into double overtime with DiBenedetto in the lead and having to conserve fuel. With an assist from Nemechek, DiBenedetto was able to stretch out his lead coming the white. As he and Elliott fought for the front, Hamlin, who restarted sixth, caught the leaders coming into Turn 4 and ducked below the line to catch DiBenedetto.
As for the questionable move to finish first?
“They were crashing in front of us,” Hamlin said. Obviously, I got forced down there just like the 21 (Matt DiBenedetto) and others did. There were a bunch of us that all crashed down there.”
While DiBenedetto traded paint with Byron a wreck ensued in Turn 4 behind the leaders after Reddick clipped Keselowski. Hamlin stayed low for his second victory at Talladega and the 44th of his Cup career, tying Bill Elliott for 12th on the all-time win list.
“He (Elliott) was my childhood hero growing up,” Hamlin said. “That’s why I’ve always been No. 11 to be honest is because of the days when he was running for Junior Johnson. Just an amazing day.”
There were 58 lead changes among 18 drivers. Harvick, who finished 20th, holds a three-point lead over Hamlin.