Denny Hamlin rose to the occasion.
On the outside of a transfer spot going into ISM Raceway’s elimination race, Hamlin led the most laps (143) in the Bluegreen Vacations 500 and won for the sixth time this season to earn a spot in the championship race. That included leading the final 62 laps and holding off the field in a three-lap dash to the finish following the race’s final caution for Joh Hunter Nemechek hitting the wall with nine laps to go.
Hamlin will make his second appearance in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He also gives Joe Gibbs Racing three of the four drivers competing for the championship.
“I can’t believe it,” said Hamlin of his 37th career win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. “This race team worked so hard this whole year; they deserve to be there. I put them in a bad hole last week, and I told them today in the meeting, I said, ‘I’m going to give everything I’ve got to make up for the mistake I made last week,’ and that’s all I got.”
A crash in Texas put Hamlin 20 points out of the playoff grid.
When the caution came out with nine laps to go, Hamlin led the lead-lap cars down pit road for the final time. The No. 11 team and crew chief Chris Gabehart went with two tires that kept Hamlin in the race lead, and Hamlin beat polesitter and JGR teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line.
Failing to advance into next weekend’s title race were third-place finisher Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson (fourth), and Joey Logano (ninth). Blaney also took two tires for the final restart and lined up alongside Hamlin.
Reigning series champion Logano was the first driver locked out with Hamlin’s win. Put a lap down by Hamlin on lap 239, Logano took the wave around when the last caution came out. Logano said he had “no clue” what happened to his car to fall so far back after leading 93 laps.
“Went from a car that could lead and win a stage and run really well… From what they told me, it was an air pressure adjustment that made it go from a winning car to can’t stay on the lead lap, and one of the tightest things I’ve ever driven,” said Logano. “I don’t really understand it. It doesn’t make any sense. You change tires and change a half pound of air? That sounds ridiculous. So, it is what it is.
“Just wasn’t our year to make it, I guess,” the Penske driver continued. “But we’ll fight for fifth in points this year, and we’ll move on. It stinks, it hurts a little bit, but we’ll live. Everything’s going to be OK. Life is a lot worse in other ways for some. We’re still fortunate to be here and get to do what we love. It’s a bummer for sure. It doesn’t take anything from that, but it’s just part of the game sometimes.”
Also eliminated was Chase Elliott. In a must-win situation, a crash on lap 167 for what Elliott (who was running third at the time) believes was a cut left-rear tire, ended his championship hopes.
This marks the third consecutive year Chevrolet has not been represented in the Championship 4.