NASCAR pulled it off. And so did Denny Hamlin. After making the unprecedented decision to move the Clash at the Coliseum a full day to avoid potentially dangerous weather, NASCAR was able to get the full 150 laps Saturday night in a race that was originally scheduled for Sunday.
As for Hamlin, after off season surgery, he showed that he could be a force to be reckoned with this season. Hamlin took the pole and led 47 of the first 75 laps the led to the halfway break. His biggest competition in the first half came from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Ty Gibbs who started third and led 21 laps in the first half.
Just past the halfway break a quick succession of two cautions slowed the action. But on a restart on lap 77, Gibbs muscled past Joey Logano who started the day second, and began to check out. Gibbs held the top spot by just over 2 seconds while fighting through heavy traffic as Logano methodically made his way back while Hamlin fell back, seemingly out of contention.
Gibbs held station until Michael McDowell got shoved by Ross Chastain coming into turn 3 with 10 laps to go, bringing out the race’s sixth caution and setting up a final race shoot out.
On the restart, a three wide battle broke out that saw Hamlin take the lead and Logano getting punted back to fifth. With four to go, Kyle Busch moved Gibbs aside and set his sights for the lead. Kyle Larson then knocked Gibbs around in turn 4 leaving the young driver’s hopes for the win dashed.
“A lot of it was what happened in front of me with (Ty Gibbs) and (Joey Logano). You just never know what was going to happen there,” Hamlin said. “But I got a really good run off of Turn 2 and got position and was able to hang on from there.
“It’s so chaotic with the restarts with everyone just bumping and banging but it feels good to win here in L.A.”
The final caution meant the race would have a green-white-checkered flag finish. Coming to the choose Ryan Blaney from third took the outside lane after Busch lined up behind Hamlin. In the ensuing melee, Hamlin emerged with the lead while Busch grabbed second over Ryan Blaney who had made a valiant effort from the back of the field after taking a provisional just to make the field.
On the final lap Hamlin was able to check out winning by .610 of a second over Busch. Blaney held on for third.
“Yeah, the plan was not to take the provisional,” Blaney said. “Our group was pretty slow. I guess we just couldn’t go. So we were lucky we got in the race.
“We did a good job all night just kind of staying clean, and our car was fast, too, to drive up through the field. A couple restarts went our way as to where our lanes went, and just had a shot. I got a terrible restart on the last one. Probably wouldn’t have won anyway, but came from a long way back, so it was fun. I think every time I’ve been I’ve been spun backwards about two or three times, so it’s not nice to have that one at the last one, so it’s good.”
Logano and Larson rounded out the top five. After his crash Gibbs was scored 18th.
“I ran him up,” Gibbs said of Larson. “But if you go back and look at the replay the 12 (Ryan Blaney) kind of chucks him out of the way too. It is just hard racing there at the end. This place is really hard to get your tires warm once the caution comes out – as you could see, everyone was sliding around, so I just got in there deep and washed up into him. We just got all tangled up after that.”
NASCAR’s decision to move the race up one day came due to the forecast of incoming inclement weather and what NASCAR said was out of concern for fan safety. The weather was expected to worsen overnight Saturday into Sunday with the chance of flooding and high winds.
The move was widely praised by drivers.
“I think today is an unprecedented mark in our sport and one that I think all of us will applaud NASCAR, FOX and everybody on for giving us the chance to get a race in today,” Busch said. “I don’t know that we would have been able to do it before Wednesday and would we have even been here on Wednesday. So this was the best chance that we had. I feel like it was definitely a very good move.”
The NASCAR season gets underway in earnest at Daytona International Speedway in just two weeks. And with his win, Hamlin has the momentum boost heading into the season.
“It doesn’t do much more than that,” he said. “I clean off all the trophies every January 1 and now we get to add one pretty quick.”
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