AVONDALE, Ariz. – Denny Hamlin was on the outside of the championship picture at the start of Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway.
By the time the checkered flag waved, Hamlin was ready to battle for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing survived a late-race restart to score his sixth victory of the season and earn a place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I can’t believe it,” Hamlin said as he emerged from his race car Sunday. “This team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve it and I told them today in the meeting that I’m going to give everything I’ve got to make up for the mistake I made last week.”
Hamlin entered Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway 20 points out of a place in the Championship 4 after a mistake last week at Texas Motor Speedway knocked him below the points cutoff. That effectively meant he had to hope for some bad luck from two other playoff drivers – Joey Logano and Kyle Busch – or he had to win.
Rather than hope for some bad luck from Logano or Busch, Hamlin simply went out and won the race instead. He took control of the race on lap 177 after a multi-lap battle with Logano and other than four laps led by Kurt Busch during a cycle of green flag pit stops, led the rest of the distance.
The only stick in the mud was a caution flag with nine laps left when John Hunter Nemechek smacked the wall. Hamlin and the rest of the lead lap cars hit pit road, but Hamlin’s team opted for two fresh tires instead of four. Ryan Blaney, who also had to win to advance to Homestead, also took two tires while Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. took four tires behind him.
The race resumed with three laps left and Hamlin had to go on the defensive as Blaney and Kyle Busch took him three-wide entering turn one. Hamlin emerged from turn two with the race lead while Kyle Busch moved into second.
Hamlin held serve over the final few laps, beating Busch to the checkers to earn his place in the Championship 4 at Homestead alongside Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
“One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that,” Hamlin said. “I pushed for all I had. That was all I’ve got. Once we got the big lead there, over 10 seconds, I just sat there and I got to thinking about, well, if the caution does come out I want to lap as many as I can. That’s all we had.
“There is still work to be done, it doesn’t guarantee us a championship. But it gives us a chance. Live to fight another day. That’s all you can ask for.”
Blaney finished third and Kyle Larson was fourth. Both drivers were eliminated from playoff contention. Harvick came home fifth.
Chase Elliott, who entered Sunday’s race in a must-win situation if he had any hopes of advancing to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, crashed on lap 165 and finished last in the 39-car field.
Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Logano was also ousted from the playoffs. He led 93 laps and won stage two, but he struggled during the final stage and fell out of contention, finishing ninth.
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