Denny Hamlin finally found Victory Lane—in the first race of the Playoffs at Darlington Raceway.
Despite a last-lap challenge and bump by Kyle Larson in Turn 4, Hamlin held on for his fourth win at the track.
Hamlin’s second Southern 500 victory allowed the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team to advance to the Round of 12.
“It was a matter of time,” Hamlin said. “We can't just keep leading inside 10 laps to go every week and not get a win. Yesterday was some unique circumstances but, man, I tell you what, I couldn't be happier for this win and now to move to the Round of 12.”
Larson finished .212-seconds behind Hamlin. Ross Chastain finished third followed by Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chris Buescher and Austin Dillon.
The drama started early and often with the Playoff contenders. Seven laps into the contest, Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell made contact battling for 14th. Alex Bowman, who developed a front right tire rub, was the next victim. Bowman had been running eighth before he hit the Turn 4 wall. To add insult to injury, William Byron was collected in Bowman’s wreck.
Problems didn’t end for Hendrick Motorsports with the Nos. 48 and 24. When the drivers pitted during the competition caution on Lap 26, Chase Elliott received damage on the No. 9 Chevy from a tire being swung from a carrier on the No. 53 team. Elliott, who had been running in the top five prior to the incident, had to return to pit road for repairs and dropped to 33rd.
Polestar Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch traded the point for the first 30 laps. Harvick showed promise when the race restarted on Lap 30—but the yellow flew again one lap later when McDowell’s Ford got loose out of Turn 2.
“The 43 kind of got everybody jammed up,” McDowell said of Erik Jones. “I think he started on the front there without tires, which is a tough spot to be in and I just went three-wide underneath him and just got into the patch with my left sides just a little bit low. I got loose enough into the wall and that was about it. I’ll have to see the replay, but just heartbreaking for everybody on this Front Row team. We had high hopes coming into the playoffs and this is not how we wanted to start it.”
Harvick regained the lead, but Larson was coming. He restarted sixth but moved up to fourth by the time the Rick Ware Racing cars of Cody Ware and James Davison collided in Turn 2 on Lap 48. When Bowman returned to the pits under caution on Lap 49, the left rear of the No. 48 caught fire.
Hamlin gained the lead in the pits for the Lap 53 restart. He held serve through pit stops to win his first stage since Richmond with Larson and Kurt Busch in tow. Hamlin maintained the lead in the pits for the Lap 123 restart, however, Larson quickly jumped out to the lead. Kyle Busch, who was running 12th, made contact with Austin Dillon two laps later and slammed into the inside of the Turn 2 wall to trigger the sixth caution.
“It wasn’t the 3’s (Dillon) fault,” Busch said. “Just take our lumps, you know. We were running like (crap), and that’s what you get when you run like (crap).
“Shouldn’t be there. I don’t know what our problem is. Every time we go to sim and use sim and think we have a good sim session we go to the race track and we suck. I’m done with that. We’ll have to use some other tools on figuring out how to be good. The M&M’s Camry was not very good and we were running terrible and we got wrecked. It wasn’t the 3’s fault.”
Larson dominated the second stage which was slowed by a debris caution followed by a horrific crash involving Byron, who cut a left front tire on Lap 200 while running seventh.
“I’m fine,” said Byron, who finished 34th. “That was a big hit. It looked like on that pit stop, it looked like we dropped the jack and the left front was still finishing up. I took off and everything felt okay. I went to pass the No. 00 (Quin Houff) or somebody down the front stretch; and was just about to turn into (Turn) 1 and the left front went down.
“There was nothing we could do. The guys did an awesome job to fix it. We were running like Top-12, I think, even with all the (earlier) right rear damage and it’s just terrible. I don’t know, man. That sucks.”
Larson maintained the lead to the end of the second stage on Lap 230—his 13th stage win. After finishing eighth in the stage, Blaney dropped to 23rd following a penalty for an uncontrolled tire in the pits. Larson continued his charge in the third stage but tagged the wall on Lap 265. Crew chief Cliff Daniels called his driver in for service five laps later and turned the lead over to Hamlin. The long-run for the Nos. 11 and 19 offered JGR a peek at the stability of the Toyotas.
Hamlin and Truex pitted from the lead consecutively on Lap 279 and 280 and Larson cycled back to the front. Seven laps later, Harvick pitted with a vibration then dropped to 23rd. Bell pitted on Lap 292 with a loose wheel and dropped to 23rd. On Lap 298, Chastain started the round of green-flag stops when he pitted from second. Larson came from the lead on the next lap followed by Logano and Kurt Busch, while Hamlin took the point.
“I knew that based off of lap times and as soon as it started getting dark, we weren't falling off as much as what we were during the day,” Hamlin said. “I was thinking in my head, I didn't want to say it on the radio because I knew my team was already thinking about it, but I'm like, seemed like we could stop one less time than what we had during the day on that last green-flag run, and that's obviously the strategy that they chose. It worked out, we went long, and when we caught the caution there, it worked out great for us.”
Hamlin extended his lead to 15 seconds over Truex as Chastain and Larson gained on the Toyotas with fresh tires. With 70 laps remaining, Blaney suffered a huge blow when a brake line exploded on the No. 12 Ford and he spun in Turn 4 to ignite the 10th caution. He was running 11th—and recovered to finish 22nd, one lap down.
Truex secured the lead in the pits—but only temporarily. NASCAR busted the No. 19 Toyota for speeding and Truex fell to 15th, turning the lead over to Hamlin on Lap 326.
But Blaney wouldn’t be the last title contender to feel the pain, defending champion Chase Elliott slapped the wall when he was put three-wide with Bell and Bubba Wallace. The No. 9 Chevy was destroyed and Elliott was scored 31st.
Hamlin held the lead with Larson alongside. The No. 11 pulled out to a half-second lead as Chastain dogged Larson in the closing laps. With five laps remaining, Larson turned it on. In a move reminiscent of Carl Edwards here in 2008, Larson dive-bombed the No. 5 into the Turn 4 wall hoping that Hamlin would diamond the corner.
“We got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven't been able to gain on him now, I'm going to try something,” Larson said. “Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave everything I had.
“I didn't want to wreck him, I just wanted to try to get to his outside there, but he did a great job not really making any mistakes during the last run, and I was having to push really hard in second to try and just stay with him.
Sparks and smoke flew off of Larson’s car as Hamlin held his line and held on for the win.
“He drove it in past the limit of the cars and the tires,” Hamlin said. “I knew he was coming. I was a little bit conservative on that last lap because I had that four-car-length lead. Yeah, I didn't think it was going go that deep, but yeah, still a great race.
It's been back and forth with me and him most of the year.
“He's just been a little bit faster on these types of racetracks, and luckily the caution came when it did and the strategy worked out great for the team, but man, I'm really happy.”
Larson maintains a 34-point lead over Hamlin entering Richmond next weekend.