With just over 50 laps to go in Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, Denny Hamlin had seemingly thrown away his chances at victory. Hamlin, playing a risky strategy game, stayed out on the race track longer than the rest of the front-runners in order to ensure that he would have enough fuel to finish the race. The strategy call seemed full-proof, so all Hamlin and his pit crew needed to do was perform a flawless pit stop.
Hamlin made a jaw-dropping mistake though. Darlington Raceway’s pit road is notorious for being one of the most difficult on the schedule, and Hamlin soon found that to be true. As the No.11 Sports Clips Toyota pulled off the track towards pit road, Hamlin realized he was carrying way too much speed. Instead of making a dangerous last-ditch effort to try to make it onto pit road, he got back on the throttle and went back around the track.
Their pit crew was able to perform a quick stop, but Hamlin cycled back out onto the track nearly 18 seconds behind the race leader. As Hamlin settled back into his groove with his eyes set on making up the deficit, he got some noticeable help from the leaders. Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. raced each other for the top position for a number of laps, ultimately slowing them both down. Truex was finally able to break out to the lead with about 40 laps to go, but Hamlin was coming fast.
As Truex battled through traffic, his lead continued to shrink. With under 5 laps to go, Hamlin had knocked his deficit down to under 2-seconds. It seemed as if it was shaping up to be a hard-fought battle between the two, but it didn’t work out that way. Truex had been pushing his car hard to maintain his lead, and with less than 3 laps to go his luck turned. The right-front tire on the No.78 blewout going into Turn 3, and Truex’s chances of victory diminished. Despite losing the race, Truex walked out of Darlington Raceway with a chip on his shoulder as he locked up the 2017 regular-season championship.
“Just sometimes it’s just not your night, you know,” said Truex after the race. “Tonight wasn’t our night. Guys did a fantastic job. Obviously we had a super strong race car, and I think we lost the lead four or five times in the pits. The guys had a little bit of an off night, and we were able to get back to the lead on those long runs. We had a great car, just didn’t work out for us tonight, but a lot to be proud of, like I said, and to come here and have a shot at winning this race two years in a row, it’s a hell of an accomplishment.”
On the other hand, Hamlin was able to squeak by Truex cleanly – capturing the checkered flag and bookmarking a remarkable rebound in one of the sport’s biggest races.
“You know, it’s just I think a lot of that came from Truex beating us on a green flag sequence earlier in the day, and so I pushed it a little more on pit entry, and I didn’t want it to happen again, and I just pushed it a little bit too much,” said Hamlin about his pit road mistake. “Kind of a rookie move, but also just trying to optimize everything, and it was just we got our car better as soon as it turned into night. We kept getting the car better, kept making adjustments and kept working on it, and we had something we could win with.”
Sunday night’s win is Hamlin’s second-career in the famed Southern 500, and his 31st overall career victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The victory also capped off the weekend sweep for Hamlin, who also won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity race at Darlington. Hamlin now stands alone as the only driver in history with multiple weekend sweeps at the famed track.
“It means so much. I mean, this is the Southern 500,” said Hamlin post-race. “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.”
NASCAR now heads out of Darlington Raceway and will travel up north to Richmond Raceway for the final race before the start of the 2017 Playoffs. For drivers currently outside the points cutoff; such as Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, etc., next Saturday night’s race stands as one last attempt to win their way into NASCAR’s postseason.