Hamlin stages epic comeback to win at Darlington

DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 3, 2017 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

DARLINGTON SC- Denny Hamlin gambled and won Sunday night. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver staged and epic drive in the course of the final laps catching and passing Martin Truex Jr, with two laps to go to win the NASCAR Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Hamlin was a dominate player most of the race leading 124 of the 367 laps. But he had stayed out late in the going along with Kyle Busch and were the only cars on the lead lap during a round of green flag stops, the final ones of the race.  When he did pit, Hamlin missed the entrance to pit road and was forced to go around again. It appeared at that point that after being in contention the entire race his hopes for victory were over.

I got beat on the last green flag sequence – the (Martin) Truex (Jr.) came from a straightaway back and beat us out of the pits,” Hamlin said. “A little bit of that was pit road and I think a little bit of that was my entry and I tried to get all I could and just flat out overshot it and so I knew by – I looked at my dash and I gave up about 10 to 12 seconds and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can,’ you know? ‘Were we going to win this race by 10 or 12 seconds? I doubt it,’ and so we just had to put on a heck of a drive. My crew chief, Wheels (Mike Wheeler), was motivating me every lap to push, push, push and that’s all I had.”

Hamlin did indeed put on a heck of a drive and with fresher tires reeled in leader Truex. With 10 laps to go, Hamlin had cut a 10 second gap to 2.5 seconds. With five laps to go the lead was just a half a second.

With two laps to go, Truex slid into the wall in turn 3, and Hamlin shot by and onto victory.  The win came a day after Hamlin won the Xfinity race, a feat he also accomplished in 2010.

“The problem was there was some lap cars with newer tires that were passing us at the same time I was trying to catch him,” Hamlin said. “So, kept slowing my momentum and really those three laps I was all over the track. I was laying on the wall every single lap trying to do everything I could and, you know, I think we had them pretty good there and we just – it looked like he cut a tire entering Turn 3, but we were right there ready to pounce.”

For Truex, he had the car to beat on the long runs, and the final run was 100 laps. In the end, he came up two laps short of his second Southern 500 win.

“I mean, it was definitely a bittersweet night for us,” Truex said. “To come up just two laps short there, blow a tire at the end after having no issues with tires all night and having such a good race car.  I don’t know if that last run was the longest one we made all night.  I’m not really sure to be honest.  I was kind of out there caught up driving my guts out at the end trying to hang on.”

“It’s unfortunate we blew the tire, but really proud of everybody on this team for an amazing season so far, and to lock up the regular season points is a huge accomplishment for us, for our team.  I feel like we’ve come a long way in just a few years together and continue to climb.”

Winning both stages however at least gave Truex something to celebrate as he clinched the regular season champions title and the 15 playoff points that go with it.

“It’s definitely special,” Truex said.  “It feels great.  Definitely can go to Richmond without any pressure, which is awesome.  The other cool part is I clinched my first NASCAR championship here back in ’04 in the Busch Series back then.  To do it here again tonight was really cool.  It was just kind of a neat connection.  Darlington has been good to me.  I love coming here, and for that reason I guess it’s a little bit extra special to do it here tonight.”

Kyle Busch was second followed by Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Erik Jones in the top five.

“I certainly wish that we could have kept pace with the 11 a little bit longer,” Busch said.  “We were right there with him for a long time, longer than we had all night long in that final stint.  But he got through a couple lap cars a little quicker than I did, and then they got side by side and then I got sucked into the fence, and after that it just wasn’t the same.”

Kyle Larson tied Hamlin for the most laps led, 124, but a loose wheel sent him back to pit road and he never recovered finishing 14th one lap down.

Matt Kenseth was sixth, Ryan Newman seventh, Truex held on for eighth; Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 10. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Richmond International Raceway for the final race of the regular season next Saturday night.

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