Denny Hamlin had the track position in the final stint of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but he needed it to be a long run if he was going to beat Erik Jones instead of following him across the finish line.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished second in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs opening race, the highest finishing championship driver. He went from fourth to second on the final restart with 20 laps to go but found his No. 11 Toyota to be the tightest it had been all day, keeping him from making a move on Jones despite nearly getting to his back bumper.
“I plowed tight,” Hamlin said. “We did really good keeping our track position; we really needed this race to go green. When we went long, we were just catching the field. My long run pace was so good, and then we fired off extremely fast on that last green flag stop, and I really liked where we were at.
“I saw the leaders pretty quickly, and I thought I was probably going to be three-quarters of a lap behind, but I’ve done that song and dance here before and come back. We didn’t need the short run. We weren’t good on the short run.”
The last round of green flag pit stops began with just under 50 laps to go, but crew chief Chris Gabehart had Hamlin run long, not pitting him until about 42 to go. The final caution came out with 28 laps to go, which sent the field back down pit road once again for fresh tires. Hamlin came off pit road fourth and then saw teammate Kyle Busch, who would have been the race leader, blow up under caution and fall out of the race.
Busch was the second Gibbs car to fall out due to a mechanical issue. Martin Truex Jr. had fallen out of the race – from the lead – when his Toyota started losing pace after the last green flag pit stop. Ironically, it was Busch who took the lead when Truex fell out, only to follow his teammate to the garage a few laps later.
“I can’t control it, so I’ll run it until it blows if it blows,” Hamlin said of his concern after those two issues. “I think [Busch] might have missed a shift at some point during the day — at least that’s what my team said. That late in the day, obviously unfortunate for the No. 18.”
Hamlin chose the outside lane for the restart behind Jones, who inherited the race lead when Busch retired. He quickly jumped to second on the restart, but with a tight race car and the field on equal fresh tires, appeared a bit handcuffed as he chased Jones to a runner-up effort.
“Not to make excuses — you just can’t pass,” Hamlin said. “No one is making passes inside 15 to go when everyone has new tires; there’s just not enough lap time fall off. It’s not like the Xfinity [Series race]. I looked yesterday and in the last 15-lap run, they had 2.5s of fall-off. We had [1s] or something like that. There’s just too much on-throttle time to really capitalize. I almost got there; I needed maybe a few more laps but just not enough. It’s too hard.”