Hamlin flies through field late for Southern 500 victory

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

“The Flying 11” lived up to its name on Sunday night from Darlington Raceway.

Chesterfield, Va. native Denny Hamlin wheeled his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to Victory Lane for the Southern 500 victory while honoring modified star Ray Hendrick on NASCAR’s annual throwback weekend. Hamlin also lived up to his nickname: The Deliverminator.


THE DELIVERMINATOR DOES IT AGAIN

The man with one of the weirdest yet best nicknames in the sport (even if it doesn’t stick too much) did it again on Sunday evening. He won his second race of the 2017 season and the second Bojangles Southern 500 of his career, and he did it all in comeback fashion.

Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

“I drove my ass off. That’s as hard as I can drive,” Hamlin told NBCSN on the frontstretch after climbing out of his Flying No. 11 car. “What can I say—it’s the Flying 11. It means everything to me. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, this is a throwback to my history—this is for Ray 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 […] this one’s definitely sweeter, going through the adversity we did.”

Hamlin made the race-winning pass on eventual eighth-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. with two laps to go, as the tires on the No. 78 couldn’t last any longer. A tire blew out on his Toyota and he scraped the wall, giving the lead to Hamlin and then, the race win. Was Hamlin going to catch and pass Truex Jr. anyways? Probably. But The Lady in Black’s extremely abrasive surface told Truex Jr.’s tires that enough was enough, and the No. 78 paid the price on lap 365.

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Hamlin’s other Southern 500 victory came in 2010, meaning the streak of 11 different winners in 11 different years has come to an end. He also completed the second weekend sweep of Darlington Raceway in his career, as he won the XFINITY event on Saturday afternoon.

The track is nicknamed “Too Tough to Tame” for a reason. It has been known to reward veterans who are great with tire management and endurance racing. Because 500 miles and 367 laps around one of the toughest tracks in the world will get ya—but Denny Hamlin got it this time.


WHAT ALMOST WASN’T

On lap 313 of 367, Hamlin turned left off the banking in turn three and headed for pit road for what would be his final pit stop of the evening. Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch stayed out for about 15 more laps than everyone else, opting for fresher tires at the end.

But there was one problem: Hamlin missed pit road. He locked up his tires trying to slow down to pit road speed and missed the entrance to pit lane. He got his No. 11 back rolling, but ultimately gave up 10 seconds on that lap. He then pitted the following lap and emerged 20 seconds behind then-race leader Martin Truex Jr. And he was on a mission.

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“I would have looked pretty silly after the race trying to explain why we lost,” Hamlin said of his pit road miscue. “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 bit more on pit entry, and I didn’t want it to happen again, and I just pushed it a little bit too much. 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.”

The deficit that Hamlin made up was about 20 seconds on track, which could have only been done on a handful of tracks. “It’s proud to win them in that fashion, especially as a total team effort,” Hamlin said. “Pit crew did a great job all night getting us out in front two or three times. We had a great strategy. The car was great, and the driver did okay at the end, too.”

Darlington is one of them, as the tire fall off is second to none. Throughout runs on Sunday evening, lap times were three and four seconds slower at the end of the run (when the tires wore out) than what they were at the start of the run. That’s what allowed Hamlin to run down Truex Jr. (who ultimately blew a tire and hit the wall) in the final 50 or so laps, and ultimately triumph in one of the biggest races of the season.


Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

THE FIELD

Following Hamlin across the finish line was his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. Rowdy’s brother, Kurt Busch, came home third for his second consecutive top five finish. Austin Dillon earned his first top five since his win at Charlotte in fourth, and Erik Jones came in fifth.

Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 10 with Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski capping off the top 15. Some notables include Joey Logano in 18th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 22nd, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (accident) in 29th and Clint Bowyer (engine failure) in 40th.


BITTERSWEET NIGHT FOR MTJ

Martin Truex Jr. had the win in his sights—but the racing gods had different plans.

Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard that before. It seems like bad luck follows the Mayetta, N.J. native around wherever he goes. But the night wasn’t all negative for the No. 78. He led 76 laps on the evening and won stages one and two, his 16th and 17th stage victories of the season (I know, ridiculously dominant) and clinched the regular season championship in the process. In doing so, that gives him 15 more playoff points that he can carry throughout the playoffs, bringing his tally to 52 on the season with one race remaining in the regular season.

“It was definitely a bittersweet night for us,” Truex Jr. said post-race in the media center after catching his breath. “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. 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.”


THROWBACK WEEKEND ANOTHER SUCCESS

From the countless sexy looking cars, to the facial hair, to the uniforms, to the media personalities dressing up like Miami Vice characters and Madonna (shoutout to NBC), this past weekend’s throwback campaign was a grand slam in every sense of the word.

I had two personal favorite moments from the entire weekend, and one came right before the green flag flew. Richard Petty, “The King”, was driving his famed No. 43 ahead of the field on the pace laps. He was doing so ceremoniously, but was supposed to duck off the track with one lap to go before the green flag was scheduled to fly. Key word: scheduled.

“The King” didn’t get the memo, apparently. So, NASCAR actually displayed the black flag to the No. 43. With Richard Petty behind the wheel. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Petty ultimately ducked off the track and the green flag flew. But that was awesome (and hilarious).

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My other favorite moment came around the halfway point of the race when the legendary Ken Squier took over play-by-play duties from Rick Allen, alongside Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett and his son and current NBC analyst, Dale Jarrett. That’s worthy of note in and of itself.

But Squier, in classic Squier form, called Erik Jones “That Jones Boy” repeatedly, which made Twitter erupt. He also called Daniel Suarez “The Mexican” which seemed to offend a handful of people, but it was Ken being Ken and he meant zero harm in doing so. He also called the stages segments, which I’m sure NASCAR wasn’t happy about. But who cares? It’s Ken Squier.

Having the old school feel and seeing everything on track was one thing. But hearing the old school, soothing voices of Squier and Jarrett made it seem real to me. I could honestly listen to either of them read the phone book and/or dictionary. Heck, I’d pay them to do so. Having them call a portion of the race is different. A good kind of different. It was just so fun.


ONE MORE

Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and the rest of the field hoping to clinch a playoff spot only have one more race to do. And unless any of them win a race, it ain’t looking too good.

Bowyer (17th in the standings) is 91 points back of Jamie McMurray for the 16th and final playoff spot. The No. 14 blew an engine in the first stage of Sunday evening’s event. The maximum amount of points a driver can earn in a race is 60, meaning Bowyer is mathematically ineligible to point his way into the postseason. He must win at Richmond.

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The same can be said for Jones, Suarez, Joey Logano and everybody else on the outside looking in right now. Even if Chase Elliott, McMurray and Matt Kenseth crash on the first lap and finish in the back of the pack, they’ll be in unless a driver on the outside looking in ends up in Victory Lane. But it’s not out of the question.

Richmond is one of Bowyer’s best tracks, Jones has been coming on strong lately in the Toyota camp and strategy can always produce a surprise winner. Plus, Logano’s only win (which happens to be encumbered) came at Richmond earlier this season. Stay woke.


WHAT’S NEXT

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads south to Richmond Raceway in Virginia for the 26th and final race of the regular season before the playoffs begin. The Toyota Owners 400 is scheduled to take place on Saturday evening from the 0.75-mile short-track next weekend with television coverage on NBC. The XFINITY Series will also be in action from “The Action Track.”