Denny Hamlin Opens NASCAR Cup Series Playoff with a Win at Darlington Raceway in the Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday evening.
DARLINGTON, S.C. – Holding off regular-season champion Kyle Larson throughout a thrilling final green-flag run in Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Denny Hamlin is winless in 2021 no more.
Denny Hamlin Opens NASCAR Cup Series Playoff with a Win at Darlington
Hamlin maintained control of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as Larson buried his No. 5 Chevrolet into the third and fourth turns on the final lap. Larson gave Hamlin a tap, but Hamlin blocked the top lane and got to the finish line 0.212 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
“He drove it in past the limit of the car and tires,” Hamlin said of Larson’s banzai charge. “I knew he was coming. I was a little conservative on that last lap because I had that four-car-length lead.”
The victory was Hamlin’s first of the year after a winless 26-race regular season. He won for the fourth time at Darlington and for the 45th time in his career to earn an automatic berth into the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
“Yeah, it was a matter of time,” Hamlin said of the long-awaited win. “We can’t just keep leading inside 10 laps to go every week and not get a win.”
Hamlin Holds Off Larson
Hamlin kept Larson at bay over the final two restarts but couldn’t pull away to a comfortable lead.
“We got to the white (flag), and I was like, ‘Well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something,’” Larson said of the desperation try he labeled a “video-game move.” “Honestly, got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside but gave everything I had.
“I didn’t want to wreck him. I just wanted to try to get to his outside there, but he did a great job not really making any mistakes during the last run, and I was having to push really hard in second to try and just stay with him.”
Larson led 156 of the 367 laps to Hamlin’s 146. Hamlin won the first stage and Larson the second.
Caution Gives Hamlin a Stoke of Luck
Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. caught a break when Ryan Blaney spun in the fourth turn on lap 318 while the two JGR drivers stayed on the track trying to stretch the cycle of pit stops. Truex beat Hamlin off pit road but was flagged for speeding, and Hamlin held the top spot the rest of the way.
The Best of the Rest
Non-Playoff driver Ross Chastain finished third, followed by Truex, who recovered from the penalty and an earlier loose wheel to run fourth. Playoff drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano were fifth through eighth, respectively, but for other title hopefuls, the race brought disaster.
Early Exit for Kyle Busch
Two-time series champion Kyle Busch suffered an early exit and a blow to his hopes of winning a third title. Contact with the No. 3 Chevrolet of Austin Dillon sent Busch’s No. 18 Toyota rocketing into the outside wall in the second turn, causing irreparable damage.
Busch fell out in 35th place and now faces an uphill battle to advance to the Round of 12.
“It wasn’t the 3’s (Dillon’s) fault,” Busch said. “Just take our lumps, you know. We were running like (crap), and that’s what you get when you run like (crap). Shouldn’t be there.”
Hendrick Motorsports Drivers Take Hard Hits at Darlington
Three-fourths of the Hendrick Motorsports armada took a major hit as well. Alex Bowman scraped the wall on lap 14 and stayed on the track, hoping to make it to the competition caution on lap 25. But a tire rub proved disastrous, sending Bowman’s Chevy into the wall of the fourth turn, and damage to the No. 24 Camaro of teammate William Byron in the process.
Bowman was able to continue and finished 26th, but Byron wasn’t as fortunate. After recovering to run in the top-ten, Byron cut a left front tire on lap 200, crashed hard into the first turn wall, and exited the race with a 34th-place finish.
“That was a big hit,” Byron acknowledged. “It looked like on that (previous) pit stop, it looked like we dropped the jack and the left front was still finishing up. I took off and everything felt OK. I went to pass the No. 00 (Quin Houff) or somebody down the frontstretch and was just about to turn into (turn) one and the left front went down.
“There was nothing we could do. The guys did an awesome job to fix it. We were running like top-12, I think, even with all the (earlier) right rear damage, and it’s just terrible. I don’t know, man. That sucks.”
Reigning series champion Chase Elliott fell out in 31st place after slamming the outside wall on lap 327 in a three-wide melee in the first turn with Bubba Wallace and Christopher Bell.
Daytona 500 Winner Involved in Early Wreck
An early wreck put a dagger to Michael McDowell’s slim championship chances. On lap 31, McDowell’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford broke loose behind Erik Jones’ Chevrolet in the second turn, smacked the outside wall, and careened nose-first into the inside SAFER barrier.
McDowell exited the race, his car destroyed and his title hopes hanging by a thread.
“The 43 (Jones) kind of got everybody jammed up,” McDowell said after exiting the infield care center. “I think he started on the front there without tires, which is a tough spot to be in, and I just went three-wide underneath him and just got into the patch (of new asphalt in the second turn) with my left sides just a little bit low.
“I got loose enough into the wall and that was about it. I’ll have to see the replay, but just heartbreaking for everybody on this Front Row team. We had high hopes coming into the Playoffs and this is not how we wanted to start it.”
Bowman, Busch, Byron, and McDowell fell below the current cut line for the Round of 12. Elliott leaves Darlington tenth in the Playoff standings.
NASCAR Cup Series Race – 72nd Annual Cook Out Southern 500
Darlington, South Carolina
Sunday, September 5, 2021
1. (2) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 367.
2. (6) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 367.
3. (23) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 367.
4. (10) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 367.
5. (9) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 367.
6. (3) Kurt Busch (P), Chevrolet, 367.
7. (16) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 367.
8. (11) Joey Logano (P), Ford, 367.
9. (34) Chris Buescher, Ford, 367.
10. (21) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 367.
11. (31) Cole Custer, Ford, 367.
12. (18) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 367.
13. (26) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 367.
14. (19) Ryan Newman, Ford, 367.
15. (25) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 367.
16. (8) Aric Almirola (P), Ford, 366.
17. (29) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 366.
18. (7) Tyler Reddick (P), Chevrolet, 366.
19. (24) Chase Briscoe #, Ford, 366.
20. (13) Christopher Bell (P), Toyota, 366.
21. (17) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 366.
22. (1) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 366.
23. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 365.
24. (32) Anthony Alfredo #, Ford, 364.
25. (20) Justin Haley(i), Chevrolet, 364.
26. (5) Alex Bowman (P), Chevrolet, 363.
27. (27) BJ McLeod(i), Ford, 359.
28. (28) Josh Bilicki, Ford, 359.
29. (35) Joey Gase(i), Chevrolet, 357.
30. (37) Quin Houff, Chevrolet, 355.
31. (4) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 327.
32. (22) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, Engine, 264.
33. (33) Cody Ware(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 209.
34. (14) William Byron (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 199.
35. (12) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, Accident, 125.
36. (36) James Davison, Chevrolet, Accident, 50.
37. (15) Michael McDowell (P), Ford, Accident, 30.
The Cook Out Southern 500 Stats
Average Speed of Race Winner: 121.279 mph.
Time of Race: Four Hrs, Eight Mins, One Sec. The Margin of Victory: 0.212 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 11 for 52 laps.
Lead Changes: 18 among ten drivers.
Lap Leaders: R. Blaney (P) 1-14;K. Busch (P) 15-27;E. Jones 28-29;K. Harvick (P) 30-49;J. Gase(i) 50;D. Hamlin (P) 51-80;R. Blaney (P) 81-83;D. Hamlin (P) 84-121;K. Larson (P) 122-158;C. Bell (P) 159-165;K. Larson (P) 166-196;C. Bell (P) 197-199;K. Larson (P) 200-232;R. Chastain 233;K. Larson (P) 234-269;D. Hamlin (P) 270-278;M. Truex Jr. (P) 279;K. Larson (P) 280-298;D. Hamlin (P) 299-367.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kyle Larson (P) five times for 156 laps; Denny Hamlin (P) four times for 146 laps; Kevin Harvick (P) one time for 20 laps; Ryan Blaney (P) two times for 17 laps; Kurt Busch (P) one time for 13 laps; Christopher Bell (P) two times for ten laps; Erik Jones one time for two laps; Ross Chastain one time for one lap; Joey Gase(i) one time for one lap; Martin Truex Jr. (P) one time for one lap.
Stage 1 Top-Ten: 11,5,1,12,4,19,8,10,42,22
Stage 2 Top-Ten: 5,20,42,11,4,1,22,9,12,7