LAS VEGAS — By all accounts, Denny Hamlin’s third-place run in Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway should have been classified as a success.
After all, Hamlin led four times for a race-high 121 laps, won the first stage and was in command for much of the second half of the race at the 1.5-mile Nevada oval.
However, circumstances worked against Hamlin during the closing laps Sunday night, leading to an outcome that the Virginia native called “disappointing,” given how strong his No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry was.
A late-race debris caution in the middle of the final round of green-flag pit stops left Hamlin and the majority of the other playoff contenders a lap down and forced to try and rally back.
Hamlin did, taking on fresh tires during the race’s penultimate caution period and rocketing forward. He got to the top five before a final yellow sent the race into overtime, but ran out of time to catch eventual winner Kurt Busch — settling for third following a last-lap battle with Matt DiBenedetto.
“We had a dominant car today and I’m proud of the whole FedEx team for giving me such a great car. It’s by far the best car I’ve had in Las Vegas in a long time,” Hamlin said. “It was really, really good. We’re happy with it and this new tire here. We’ll run that a few more times this year. I’m really encouraged by the way we ran, but very disappointed that we didn’t get a win. It’s just been the way that the playoffs have gone.
“Whoever stays out the longest puts themselves in a great spot to win.”
Hamlin noted that the three late-race restarts Sunday night were each slightly different, but all generated plenty of chaos that was difficult to navigate, at times.
“It was tough to try to figure out where to be. When my car is on the bottom, I’d be faster than everyone, but when the train got going up top and the draft got going, you couldn’t overcome it,” Hamlin noted. “I was really happy with the push that I got. I don’t know if I would have made a different move (at the end) or not. I just drove to the bottom there and I got all the way beside the 21 (DiBenedetto), but nobody was on the bottom there to help us push … and that was all she wrote.”
Leaving Sin City and heading into the middle race of the second round of the playoffs at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Hamlin is 58 points above the elimination line and in a somewhat-comfortable position prior to the biggest wild-card event of the postseason.
While Hamlin knows things can certainly change quickly at Talladega, he’s optimistic the points buffer he has and speed his team has shown will be enough to help carry him into the third round.
“I feel good about it. I certainly had a great day,” Hamlin said. “It’s something I’m happy about; it’s about how we ran and how fast we were. We restarted 13th there with just a few laps (to go), and then the top got shuffled and we were able to make some ground on the bottom. If either one of the cautions don’t happen, we still would have been in great shape, but it took them like seven laps to get a piece of debris off and then we had debris right in the fuel window.
“It’s just been really unfortunate circumstances for our FedEx team that have been keeping us out of victory lane, but I really am happy with the way we’re running.”