DARLINGTON, S.C. - Denny Hamlin had to come back from a mistake trying to get to pit road and had to chase down a strong Martin Truex, Jr. to have any hope to win Sunday night’s Southern 500.
That’s exactly what he did, as he passed Truex, Jr.’s ailing Toyota with a couple of laps left, and he went on to score the victory at South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway.
It marks the second victory in the Labor Day weekend classic for Hamlin, who scored the win in 2010. It also gives the Virginia driver a sweep of the weekend at Darlington after winning Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
“It means so much,” Hamlin said. “I mean, this is the Southern 500. It doesn’t get much bigger than this. This is the granddaddy of them all. This has so much history. I’m so happy to be in victory lane at Darlington. This is where I got my very first start in Joe Gibbs Racing, so this track, these fans means a lot to me.”
Hamlin made what could have been a catastrophic mistake when he missed the entrance to pit road on lap 313 while trying to pit from the lead. Hamlin then drove his Toyota back into contention, chasing down Truex, Jr. over the final 15 laps.
He was able to get to Truex, Jr. with four laps to go. One lap later, a deflating tire sent Truex, Jr. into the turn three wall, allowing Hamlin to get by for the lead and the win.
Hamlin said the win – which came while driving a special paint job in honor of Modified racing legend Roy Hendrick on Darlington’s Throwback weekend – meant everything to him.
“I mean, as far as I’m concerned, this is a throwback to my history – this is for Roy Hendrick, Bugs Hairfield, Wayne Patterson, Eddie Johnson, the short track guys that I grew up watching. This was a throwback to them. Back in 1985 and 1989, I was at Southside Speedway in the stands watching them race and learning everything I could from them and this is a throwback to them and their history.”
When green flag pit stops began on lap 296, Hamlin and his teammate, Kyle Busch, both began playing out strategy. Both Toyota drivers opted to stay out, stretching their fuel as far as they could in hopes of having fresher tires in the closing laps than their competition. The two went on to build up almost a full lap advantage over most of the field.
When Hamlin finally peeled off to come to pit road on lap 313, that strategy almost cost him the race. While trying to slow down, Hamlin missed the entrance to the pits, and had to make an additional lap before making his final pit stop.
“A little bit of that was pit road and I think a little bit of that was my entry and I tried to get all I could and just flat out overshot it and so I knew by – I looked at my dash and I gave up about 10 to 12 seconds and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can,’ you know? ‘Were we going to win this race by 10 or 12 seconds? I doubt it,’ and so we just had to put on a heck of a drive. My crew chief, Wheels (Mike Wheeler), was motivating me every lap to push, push, push and that’s all I had.”
Rather than give up, Hamlin went on the charge, making up a 20 second deficit behind the leaders. As the laps wound down, he moved into second, just under six seconds behind Truex, Jr. At first, it appeared that Truex, Jr. would be able to hold him off. But with 10 laps to go, Hamlin had cut the difference to less than two seconds. Over the next seven laps, he continued to whittle away at the lead.
With two and a half laps to go, Hamlin had caught the leader. Suddenly Truex, Jr.’s Toyota made contact with the turn three wall due to a cut tire, allowing Hamlin to move past and drive to the Southern 500 victory.
For Truex, Jr., coming up two laps short of winning his second straight Labor Day weekend victory was a hard pill to swallow.
“Yeah, I mean, it was definitely a bittersweet night for us, to come up just two laps short there, blow a tire at the end after having no issues with tires all night and having such a good race car,” he said. “I don’t know if that last run was the longest one we made all night. I’m not really sure to be honest. I was kind of out there caught up driving my guts out at the end trying to hang on.”
Truex, Jr. would soldier home to an eighth place finish. But while he missed out on winning the battle, he took a huge step towards possible winning the war.
After winning both earlier segments of the race, Truex, Jr. amassed enough points to lock up the regular season championship, giving him 15 extra bonus points going into the playoffs following next week’s regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway.
“It’s unfortunate we blew the tire, but really proud of everybody on this team for an amazing season so far, and to lock up the regular season points is a huge accomplishment for us, for our team,” he said. “I feel like we’ve come a long way in just a few years together and continue to climb.
“Proud of everybody. Wish we could have won, but that’s the breaks. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t, and tonight we come up a little short. But definitely a lot to be proud of.”
Kyle Busch finished in second, and said afterwards he wished he could have kept pace with Hamlin a little bit longer.
“We were right there with him for a long time, longer than we had all night long in that final stint,” Busch said. “But he got through a couple lap cars a little quicker than I did, and then they got side by side and then I got sucked into the fence, and after that it just wasn’t the same, so we just had to try to bide our time and just come home in one piece.”
Kurt Busch came home in third, with Austin Dillon in fourth and Erik Jones in fifth.
Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top ten.
Dawsonville, Georgia’s Chase Elliott finished in 11th.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Darlington Raceway – Darlington, SC
Bojangles’ Southern 500 – September 3, 2017
1. (9) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 367.
2. (3) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 367.
3. (7) Kurt Busch, Ford, 367.
4. (13) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 367.
5. (10) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 367.
6. (11) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 367.
7. (17) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 367.
8. (2) Martin Truex, Jr., Toyota, 367.
9. (1) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 366.
10. (5) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 366.
11. (20) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 366.
12. (18) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 366.
13. (25) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 366.
14. (4) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 366.
15. (6) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 366.
16. (21) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 366.
17. (27) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 366.
18. (8) Joey Logano, Ford, 366.
19. (30) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 365.
20. (15) Aric Almirola, Ford, 365.
21. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 365.
22. (22) Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Chevrolet, 365.
23. (34) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 364.
24. (23) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 364.
25. (26) David Ragan, Ford, 363.
26. (33) Danica Patrick, Ford, 363.
27. (28) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 362.
28. (35) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 360.
29. (14) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Ford, 358.
30. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 356.
31. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 356.
32. (38) * Derrike Cope, Toyota, 351.
33. (40) * Carl Long(i), Chevrolet, 350.
34. (29) A.J. Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 340.
35. (24) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 336.
36. (36) * Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, Accident, 202.
37. (39) * Cody Ware, Chevrolet, Accident, 144.
38. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, Accident, 125.
39. (32) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, Clutch, 104.
40. (16) Clint Bowyer, Ford, Engine, 18.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 132.761 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 46 Mins, 34 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.599 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 38 laps.
Lead Changes: 20 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: K. Harvick 1-18; Kyle Busch 19-21; K. Larson 22-99; M. Truex Jr. 100-102; K. Larson 103-147; M. Truex Jr. 148-156; K. Larson 157; D. Hamlin 158-178; M. Truex Jr. 179-200; K. Harvick 201; D. Hamlin 202-250; B. Keselowski 251-253; L. Cassill 254-258; M. Truex Jr. 259-261; Kyle Busch 262; D. Hamlin 263-313; Kyle Busch 314-315; K. Harvick 316-318; Kurt Busch 319-325; M. Truex Jr. 326-364; D. Hamlin 365-367.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): D. Hamlin 4 times for 124 laps; K. Larson 3 times for 124 laps; M. Truex Jr. 5 times for 76 laps; K. Harvick 3 times for 22 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 7 laps; Kyle Busch 3 times for 6 laps; L. Cassill 1 time for 5 laps; B. Keselowski 1 time for 3 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 78,42,11,4,2,77,1,22,18,3
Stage #2 Top Ten: 78,11,4,42,18,2,41,1,3,20
Top 10 in Points: 1. Martin Truex, Jr. – 1000 (4 Wins); 2. Kyle Busch – 893 (2 Wins); 3. Kyle Larson – (3 Wins); 4. Kevin Harvick – 867 (1 Win); 5. Denny Hamlin – 810 (2 Wins); 6. Brad Keselowski – 761 (2 Wins); 7. Chase Elliott – 737; 8. Matt Kenseth – 735; 9. Jamie McMurray – 734; 10. Jimmie Johnson – 653 (3 Wins).