DARLINGTON, S.C. – A night at Darlington Raceway that looked like it might never get started because of the rain was ultimately cut short by it, but not before Denny Hamlin took his second NASCAR Cup Series win of the season.
Hamlin, who was short on tires in the closing laps of Wednesday night’s Toyota 500, stayed out during the penultimate yellow with 34 to go after Clint Bowyer smacked the outside wall and spun in turn four.
Normally, a lack of fresh rubber at a track as abrasive as Darlington is a death sentence late in the race, but Hamlin made his track position work – with a little help from Mother Nature and a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
Hamlin led the field to green with 29 laps left with Matt DiBenedetto, who also stayed out on old tires, flanking him on the front row. The second row saw Harvick and Kyle Busch side by side, with Chase Elliott back in sixth and rain quickly approaching the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval.
The restart saw Hamlin get away as Harvick and Busch split DiBenedetto three-wide, but in doing so they allowed Elliott to get a huge run from the outside lane that eventually propelled him alongside Busch in the battle for second coming off turn four to 28 laps remaining.
As the trio of Hamlin, Elliott and Busch crossed the start/finish line, Busch lost momentum on the bottom and tried to slide in behind Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.
The move ended in disaster.
Busch hooked Elliott’s left-rear quarter panel and sent the sport’s most popular driver spinning down the track and headlong into the inside SAFER Barrier, causing terminal front-end damage to Elliott’s car and drawing the yellow flag for the 11th and final time on lap 201 with Hamlin holding on to the lead.
If that weren’t wild enough, the rain that had been threatening and dancing around the track for much of the night moved in moments later, eventually leading to a red flag with 208 of the scheduled 228 laps complete.
The race would not resume, with Hamlin adding the third Darlington Cup Series win of his career to the Daytona 500 victory he took back in February – coincidentally also his third win in that event.
Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry wasn’t the dominant force of the night, leading just 12 of the 208 laps completed, but the 12 laps he led were the most important ones – they were the final dozen.
“I’ve got my happy face on and made sure I brought it with me today,” joked Hamlin of the face mask he was wearing that featured a graphic of his face on it. “I just can’t thank FedEx and Toyota and Coca-Cola, Jordan Brand – the whole JGR engine and fab shop – everyone enough. The pit crew did a great job today. Everybody really did. I was pretty happy with how it all turned out.
“The weather really didn’t play a factor in our call there. It was really that we were limited on tires,” Hamlin tipped. “We had just come to take tires, which was our last set, but we had a set of one-lap scuffs. They weren’t glued up in time. We didn’t have time to glue them. The only choice for us was to stay out. We were really the best car on that long run anyway, though, so I think the right car won.”
Despite damage to the right-front fender on his No. 18 M&Ms Toyota Camry from the late incident with Elliott, Busch hung on thanks to the caution to collect a runner-up finish.
It didn’t come without controversy, however, as Elliott delivered a “one-finger salute” to Busch before the red flag and Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson confronted Busch for a conversation after the race.
To his credit, Busch took responsibility for the contact that led to Elliott’s elimination.
“There’s no question, I made a mistake and just misjudged the gap,” said Busch of trying to slide in behind Elliott. “When we were racing there with the 11 (Hamlin), the 9 (Chase Elliott) had a run on him. I knew he was there and I knew I needed to get in line as quick as I could and in doing so, I watched him and his momentum as he was going by me. I tried to look up in my mirror and see where (Kevin) Harvick was to get in … and I just misjudged and made a mistake and clipped the 9 and spun him into the wall.
“I hate it for Chase and his guys. I have too many friends over there on that team to do anything like that on purpose,” added Busch, who raced for Hendrick Motorsports before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. “I’ve raced Chase since he was a kid and never had any issues with him whatsoever. It was just a bad mistake on my part and I’ll just have to deal with it later on.”
Sunday Darlington winner Kevin Harvick, who was going for his second victory at the track in four days, finished third ahead of Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones.
Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson, DiBenedetto and Martin Truex Jr. filled out the top 10.
Bowyer, who dominated the first two thirds of the race and swept both stage wins, ended up 22nd in the final rundown after his wall contact and subsequent spin that set up the frenetic finish.
Polesitter Ryan Preece, who started from the top spot after an invert of the top 20 from Sunday’s finishing order, finished last in the 39-car field after the engine aboard his No. 37 expired at lap 70.
The Toyota 500 marked the first NASCAR Cup Series event held on a Wednesday since the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona Int’l Speedway, Richard Petty’s 200th premier series win.
To view complete race results, advance to the next page.