Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway started with Denny Hamlin out front and ended with Denny Hamlin out front.
What happened in between defied belief. And a driver who claims to thrive in chaos proved to be a man of his word.
Hamlin won the longest race in NASCAR history — 619.5 miles — in two overtimes, beating Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line by 0.014s.
With the victory — the second this season and the 48th of his career — Hamlin now holds trophies in all three of NASCAR’s crown jewel races: the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500. Kevin Harvick is the only other active driver with all three titles.
Hamlin’s victory spoiled what could have been one of the most astonishing comebacks in racing history. Kyle Larson started from the rear in a repaired car, suffered three pit road penalties, a spin off Turn 4 and a fire in his pit stall but — miraculously — was leading the race on the next-to-last lap of regulation when Chase Briscoe spun underneath him while battling for the lead and caused the 17th caution of the night.
A wreck on the first attempt at overtime collected Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet and scrambled the running order, leaving Hamlin in the lead on four fresh tires.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 30, 2022
“The first half (of the race) was a struggle for all of us,” said Larson, who finished ninth. “I was especially frustrated with myself. To rebound from that and have a shot to win there late was something to be proud of. Our team fought really hard. Happy with that.
“Briscoe was really good, that long run there. Wish we would have just been a little bit better so he never would have got to me, (and) ultimately spin.”
After the second overtime restart, Hamlin and Busch battled side by side until Hamlin pulled ahead on lap 412 of 413, 13 laps beyond the scheduled distance. Busch rallied but couldn’t get back to Hamlin’s bumper.
“It’s so special,” Hamlin said. “It’s the last big one that’s not on my résumé. It meant so much.
“Man, we weren’t very good all day. Just got ourselves in the right place at the right time. What a battle there!”
Hamlin, however, was far from the likely winner as the race unfolded. Daniel Suarez arguably had the fastest car. His Trackhouse Racing teammate, Ross Chastain, led 153 laps — more than any other driver.
In the closing stages of regulation, it appeared for all the world that Larson and Briscoe would decide the outcome between them, until Briscoe spun as he was attempting to pass the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion to the inside.
But in the first attempt at overtime, Austin Dillon’s bold move on four fresh tires to Larson’s two went awry off Turn 4, damaging seven cars and setting up Hamlin’s win in the second overtime.
That was merely the concluding chapter in a five-hour thriller.
On a night that already had seen a surfeit of breathtaking action, Suarez’s Chevrolet turned sideways on lap 346 after contact with Briscoe’s Ford an ignited a four-car wreck that ended with Chris Buescher’s Ford barrel-rolling five times through the frontstretch infield and landing on its roof.
We are very thankful that @Chris_Buescher is ok.
He was evaluated and released from the infield care center. pic.twitter.com/w97UBrxU3Q
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 30, 2022
Buescher climbed from his car uninjured, but a strong run for the Roush Fenway Keselowski driver ended abruptly. So did a remarkable run from Suarez, who had led four times for 38 laps, only to lose spots on every pit stop, with the cars of Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin blocking his egress from pit road.
“I’m going to be a bit sore tomorrow,” Buescher said after an obligatory trip to the infield care center. “I haven’t been upside-down in a really long time. The team did a really nice job. We had great speed and had a chance at this thing, it just didn’t work out.”
The opening laps of the event were an omen of things to come.
How intense was the racing? Here’s a microcosm: The first lap ended in a dead heat, with Kurt Busch nosing ahead of Hamlin by less than one thousandth of a second. Racing side-by-side with Hamlin, Busch extended his lead to .004 seconds on lap 2 — roughly six inches.
A determined Hamlin regained the top spot on lap 3, but only by 0.01s. The opening action set the tone for the entire race, which produced 31 lead changes between 13 different drivers.
But what happened at the front of the field was multiplied exponentially by aggressive, close-quarters racing throughout the pack.
On lap 192 — eight laps short of the halfway point — the close-quarters competition ended badly. In the second turn after a restart following the 10th caution, Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 Ford hooked the apron with the left-front tire and spun sideways.
That misstep triggered a 13-car wreck that eliminated the contending cars of Blaney, Kurt Busch and William Byron.
“I was tucked up tight behind the 8 (Tyler Reddick), and he was kind of lower than I thought on the frontstretch and kind of ran through the turf, and then got to (Turn) 1 and jerked right,” Blaney said after the wreck.
“I think he was up behind the 99 (Suarez) and thinking he was going hit the apron, and I didn’t have time to kind of get right, and I just kind of hit the apron and got me loose. I hate that other cars got tore up.”
That wreck wouldn’t be the last. By the end of the race, 17 pf the 37 cars that started the event already sat in the garage in various states of disrepair.
Kevin Harvick soldiered to a third-place finish, followed by Briscoe and Christopher Bell. Tyler Reddick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, Larson and Alex Bowman completed the top 10.