It ended up being closer than expected over the final run at Martinsville Speedway, but Denny Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team advanced into the Championship 4.
Hamlin finished 11th in the Xfinity 500 after winning the first stage and leading 42 laps. But as the track took rubber and the sun went down, his Toyota wasn’t as good. And Hamlin also tried to avoid putting himself in vulnerable positions around those get too racy for fear of finding any sort of trouble.
In the end, Hamlin advanced by nine points. He entered the day 27 points above the cutline. Over the final few laps, Hamlin was trying to keep Kevin Harvick in his sights while fighting off a charge from teammate Erik Jones.
“We obviously had a big goal in mind, and we were 12th or 11th, and (Jones) really wanted the spot,” said Hamlin. “We picked up my lap times there enough at the end to kind of hold him off; I got the high line going a little bit. But I put myself kind of there because I was kind of getting roughed up a little bit with some other guys. I didn’t want to cut a tire, so I just kind of backed off and didn’t really run as hard as I needed to early in that run, and obviously the 4 (Harvick) was going forward a little bit, but Erik, I don’t fault him or anything. He finished behind us, and we had enough to go.”
Hamlin knew it was going to be close on points coming down the finish. He lined up eighth on the final restart with 51 laps to go while Harvick was 14th. With Chase Elliott leading and needing to win, both Hamlin and Harvick needed all the points they could get, and coming to the finish, Harvick needed one point to advance.
But Harvick, who was running ahead of Hamlin, failed in his attempt to knock Kyle Busch out of the way. Harvick ended up eliminated as Hamlin advanced by nine points, and Brad Keselowski advanced by eight.
“I knew it was close,” said Hamlin. “I thought we’d be fast enough to just kind of – when he got to me, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to give him any chance to do anything here,’ so I just let him go and figured I could tag onto his rear bumper, and whoever he passed, I would pass. But we faded.
“We had a couple different codes with our Goodyear tires that didn’t match up there at the end and just wasn’t a good combination for our car. We just struggled. So, 11th was pretty much all we could muster there at the end, and luckily those guys didn’t have a stellar race.”
Hamlin will vie for his first championship for the third time in this winner-take-all format.
“We won the first stage, we finished third in the second stage, and then we had to go to the back (for pitting twice to check the lug nuts), and 11th was all we could come back to,” said Hamlin. “I don’t think we had an awful night; we ran good for the first half of the race, and then once I got back in traffic and changed the tire codes, it was just awful.
“We can win any week; we know that. Wouldn’t bet against us. Do it at your own risk.”