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Darlington Double Didn’t Produce Twins

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 21 2020

Denny Hamlin collected a rare Wednesday night victory when he won at Darlington. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Two NASCAR Cup point races in four days at the same track had never occurred in the series 71-year history until this week at Darlington Raceway and there was very little similarity between the two events.

Denny Hamlin claimed his second victory this season in Wednesday night’s rain-shortened Toyota 500, while Kevin Harvick secured his first win this year in the Sunday afternoon Real Heroes 400. Hamlin’s win occurred at night in cool temperatures, which meant “tires didn’t quite mean as much,” crew chief Chris Gabehart said. It was the opposite for Harvick, whose dominating win came in more seasonal South Carolina May weather – hot and humid.

Even before Wednesday’s race ended 20 laps shy of its scheduled 228-lap distance, it still was slated to be 65 laps shorter than Sunday’s 293-lap event. Sunday’s starting lineup was determined by a draw. Wednesday’s starting lineup was set by inverting Sunday’s finishing order. First 1-20 was inverted and then 21-40.

The inversion, the shorter race and probably the fact the drivers weren’t stepping into their cars for the first time in 71 days all combined to make Wednesday’s race a more emotionally charged, aggressive event. Hamlin led only once for 12 laps and there were 17 lead changes among 13 drivers. That’s a big difference from Sunday’s race when Harvick led twice for 159 laps and there were only 10 lead changes among six drivers.

Wednesday night the final caution period actually occurred not for rain, but for an incident between Chase Elliott’s Chevrolet and Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the frontstretch. 

Elliott was second at the time and in position to pass Hamlin when the accident occurred. Busch, who was on the inside, attempted to squeeze between Elliott and Harvick as they raced for turn one. There wasn’t room and he hit Elliott’s left rear, turning him into the inside wall. A visibly upset Elliott refused to get into the waiting ambulance until he flipped off Busch.

“Obviously, I just made a mistake, misjudged the gap, sent him into the wall,” Busch said after finishing second. “That was entirely unintentional. 

“I’ll definitely reach out to him and tell him I’m sorry, tell him I hate it that it happened. All I can do. That doesn’t change the outcome of the night.”

Elliott didn’t confront Busch after the race, but his crew chief Alan Gustafson did. Gustafson, who was Busch’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports 2005-2007, said his former driver’s explanation didn’t calm the situation.

“Ultimately, he (Busch) made a mistake and I get it,” Gustafson said. “I don’t think he intentionally wrecked us, but you just get tired of coming out on the wrong end of those deals too often. I certainly feel like we were in position to win that race. Denny (Hamlin) was in trouble on old tires and we were going to clear Kyle.”

Hamlin’s crew had given him his only remaining set of new tires on his last stop. The tires they removed at that time only had 1 ½ laps on them, so the plan was to prepare the scuffs for use again in case they were needed. The next opportunity came so quickly that the lug nuts weren’t set on the wheels. 

“It takes a little bit of time once you glue them up to get the lug nuts where you’re confident you can do another pit stop,” Gabehart explained. “I wasn’t 100 percent certain we could have a flawless pit stop there. If we had a lug nut fall off, it would have ruined our day.”

  Hamlin’s third Darlington victory and 39th-career win came in the first Wednesday NASCAR Cup race since Richard Petty claimed his 200th victory on July 4, 1984.  

“I just love the race track,” Hamlin said about Darlington. “I think the driver can make up a little bit of maybe what his car doesn’t have with moving around the race track, different lines, throttle and brake application. There’s a lot of things a driver can do to make his performance better at this type of race track.”

Six races into the 2020 season interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamlin remains the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver to have won. After the three-race western swing that followed the season-opening Daytona 500, many questioned JGR’s competitiveness this season. 

“I think we’re still behind,” Hamlin admitted. “I don’t think we can sugarcoat it in any kind of way and say we’re in good shape now. I think the Hendrick cars, in particular, are the class of the field right now. The Fords are always fast. 

“I think we still have a lot of work to do. I saw some improvement from Sunday to today and that was just setup. The cars weren’t a big difference. It was just getting your car right for the race track. Maybe putting more emphasis on the actual setup and having the car actually drive good is something that’s going to be better for success for us.”

The series now moves to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the traditional Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday. Unlike previous years, qualifying will occur on race day at 2 p.m. Stock car racing’s longest event is scheduled for a 6 p.m. start. 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 21 2020
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