LONG POND, Pa. – Denny Hamlin saved enough fuel to hold off his teammate Erik Jones and make it to the checkered flag on Sunday, winning the Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway in a thrilling finish.
Hamlin, who never led at the 2.5-mile Tricky Triangle until the start of the final stage, pitted for the final time with 45 laps left – after a caution for Ryan Preece’s crashed car in turn one – and turned the remaining distance into a perfect blend of economy running and power passes.
Kyle Busch, who led 56 laps on the day and won the first stage, stayed out when Hamlin pitted on lap 116 and held it until he had to make his final trip down pit road with 27 to go – stuck on an alternate strategy compared to the rest of his teammates.
Busch’s pit stop allowed Jones to assume command, which Jones held over Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin until the latter decided to hit the button and take off. He quickly disposed of Truex for second and with 17 to go, Hamlin soared around Jones to take a lead he wouldn’t relinquish again.
That didn’t mean there weren’t nerves, however, as the stopped car of Josh Bilicki brought out a late yellow flag and a crash on the ensuing restart with four laps left – involving Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell – led to a nerve-racking overtime finish and concerns about fuel for all of the frontrunners.
Hamlin, however, stayed the course. He nailed the final restart and held off every advance that Jones tried to make over the final five miles, reaching the checkered flag in front by .341 seconds.
As he climbed out of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota on the frontstretch, Hamlin let out a visible sigh of relief.
“I was really worried … really worried,” said Hamlin of his concerns about having enough fuel to make it to the finish. “We just did a great job with the car. Once we lost track position there to the 19 (Truex) and the 20 (Jones), I thought it was over because we wouldn’t able to pass them. But we found a way.”
As much as he was trying to conserve precious ounces of gasoline behind his teammates, Hamlin knew inside of 20 to go that he had to make his move and hope for the best once he was out in front.
“I was in fuel save mode and still trying to get around those guys,” explained Hamlin of his mentality. “Once I got around them, then I really went into (fuel) conservation mode instead of stretching the lead out there. I knew the 20 (Jones) … he passed me on pit lane somehow. We actually dropped the car after that pit stop and packed it full of fuel with the car level, just to get a little bit more gas.
“I knew I was racing the 19 (Truex), if no caution came out, but I got the opportunity on the outside of turn three (to pass Jones for the lead) and we got it done from there. It feels really good.”
Sunday’s performance was Hamlin’s 34th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, his third of the season and his fifth at Pocono, snapping a nine-year drought at the unique, three-turn facility.
His last win at Pocono prior to this weekend came in 2010.
“We’re on a roll this year and we’re running our best right now,” noted Hamlin. “There’s no doubt about it. We’re just going to keep plugging along. That’s all I can say. We’re doing the best we can and today is proof that we’re in this fight (for the championship).”
Jones’ runner-up finish was his best effort since winning at Daytona (Fla.) Int’l Speedway last July and marks his third-straight run of third or better, with Truex next in line and completing a sweep of the podium for Joe Gibbs Racing.
William Byron crossed fourth and Kyle Larson finished fifth. Polesitter Kevin Harvick, who won stage two and led a race-high 63 laps, was the highest-finishing Ford driver in sixth.
Daniel Hemric and Brad Keselowski followed Harvick home, with Busch rallying back to ninth after his pit stop under green due to differing pit strategy. Ryan Blaney capped off the top 10.