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Hamlin Turns Labor Day Into Veterans Night

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 6 2021

Denny Hamlin visited his first victory lane of 2021 Sunday night at Darlington. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Darlington Raceway is a finicky old track, one that lulls youthfulness into an over confidence that breeds mistakes while rewarding the veteran that knows how to properly treat it.

Such was the case Sunday night in the Cook Out Southern 500. When the checkered flag waved it was 40-year-old Denny Hamlin in victory lane, a 15-time veteran of NASCAR’s Cup Series playoffs and a driver who had tamed the 1.366-mile historical track on three previous occasions.

“There’s not a lot of 500-mile races that are a thriller anymore,” crew chief Chris Gabehart said. “But Darlington is the quintessential NASCAR race. The endurance really is the test. Man, machine for 500 miles. There were only a few guys left standing at the end with a shot to win and that’s just a tribute to this race track and this race.” 

The race’s finish was indeed classic stock car racing Darlington style. Kyle Larson banged his Chevrolet against the wall several times before slamming it into the third-turn wall in an effort to pass Hamlin on the final lap. Larson bumped Hamlin in the third turn, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver held his line and Larson had to settle for second.

“I figured there was something coming,” said Hamlin, who maintained a half-second lead or less over the final 20 laps en route to his first victory this season. 

“I thought he was actually going to dive down low because I had started backing up on entry to turn three to make sure I kept it off the wall. I just kept creeping down a little bit to make sure I gave myself a little bit more room. With that you’re giving up lap time.

“I thought the bold move was going to come from the bottom. I certainly didn’t think he was going to get to my rear bumper as far back as he was. He had an interesting strategy. It nearly worked out.”

Larson decided to wall ride after realizing he was stuck at a gap behind Hamlin for the last 15 laps. He couldn’t get to his bumper and he wasn’t able to run the bottom.

“He (Hamlin) started running a little bit safer line the last few laps and getting back to diamonding,” Larson said. “I thought if I rode the wall I could squeeze to his outside and who knows what would have happened after that down the frontstretch. I actually got to his bumper a little bit too early and then he kind of protected the wall. I shoved him in the center of (turns) three and four. Then he kind of did pull down and I tried to throttle up to get to his outside. My car was broken by then and plowing. It was just wild.”

The race that made its Labor Day weekend debut in 1950 opened the playoffs for the second straight year and it became a nightmare for many of the 16 drivers contending for the title. Alex Bowman and William Byron suffered sheet metal damage after only 16 laps. The 28-year-old Bowman fought his way to a 26th-place finish while the 23-year-old Byron had to settle for 34th after crashing on lap 200 of the 367-lap race. 

Kyle Busch’s incident with Austin Dillon in Stage 2 eliminated the Las Vegas native from the race at the 125-lap mark. Busch was exiting turn two when Dillon clipped Busch’s inside, sending his Toyota’s rear into the wall. Busch finished 35th.

Chase Elliott’s Chevrolet sustained sheet metal damage early in Stage 1 as he left his pit when he collided with a tire being carried by a crewman for James Davison. Forty laps from the finish the 25-year-old Elliott was eliminated when he hit the wall while racing three abreast. He finished 31st

Ryan Blaney lost the brakes on his Ford and a lap. That left the 27-year-old driver 22nd at the finish. 

Thirty-seven-year-old Aric Almirola was the first driver a lap down in 16th.  

Of the three playoff rookies, 25-year-old Tyler Reddick produced the best performance. He finished 18th, while 26-year-old Christopher Bell took 20th and Michael McDowell 37th. McDowell crashed on lap 31.

“Darlington in general is just one of those places that creates chaos in itself,” said 45-year-old Kevin Harvick, who started his 15th appearance in the playoffs with a fifth-place finish. “There are a lot of places that you can make a mistake and it’s the first race of the playoffs. Everybody always loses their mind in the first race of the playoffs. It happens every year. If it’s not the first race, it’ll be one of the first three, or four, five in six, or seven, eight and nine. At some point, they all lose their mind.”  

At the checkered flag, the majority of the playoff contenders in the top 10 were the wily veterans and Cup champions who understand Darlington. Forty-one-year-old Martin Truex Jr. took fourth, 43-year-old Kurt Busch finished sixth, 37-year-old Brad Keselowski placed seventh and 31-year-old Joey Logano was eighth.

“I’ve been here (playoffs) a whole bunch of times,” Harvick said with a grin. “I’ve been to Darlington a whole bunch of times. You race the race track and it’s just what you do.  Just because it’s the first race of the playoffs you can’t force the issue here.  You just take what you get and luckily tonight we had a good enough car to keep us up front.” 

Richmond hosts the next playoff race at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 11. Entering that event, Bowman, Kyle Busch, Byron and McDowell occupy the bottom four positions. 

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NASCAR Cup Series Race – 72nd Annual Cook Out Southern 500

Darlington Raceway

Darlington, South Carolina

Sunday, September 5, 2021

  1. (2)  Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 367.
  2. (6)  Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 367.
  3. (23)  Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 367.
  4. (10)  Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 367.
  5. (9)  Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 367.
  6. (3)  Kurt Busch (P), Chevrolet, 367.
  7. (16)  Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 367.
  8. (11)  Joey Logano (P), Ford, 367.
  9. (34)  Chris Buescher, Ford, 367.
  10. (21)  Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 367.
  11. (31)  Cole Custer, Ford, 367.
  12. (18)  Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 367.
  13. (26)  Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 367.
  14. (19)  Ryan Newman, Ford, 367.
  15. (25)  Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 367.
  16. (8)  Aric Almirola (P), Ford, 366.
  17. (29)  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 366.
  18. (7)  Tyler Reddick (P), Chevrolet, 366.
  19. (24)  Chase Briscoe #, Ford, 366.
  20. (13)  Christopher Bell (P), Toyota, 366.
  21. (17)  Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 366.
  22. (1)  Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 366.
  23. (30)  Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 365.
  24. (32)  Anthony Alfredo #, Ford, 364.
  25. (20)  Justin Haley(i), Chevrolet, 364.
  26. (5)  Alex Bowman (P), Chevrolet, 363.
  27. (27)  BJ McLeod(i), Ford, 359.
  28. (28)  Josh Bilicki, Ford, 359.
  29. (35)  Joey Gase(i), Chevrolet, 357.
  30. (37)  Quin Houff, Chevrolet, 355.
  31. (4)  Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 327.
  32. (22)  Erik Jones, Chevrolet, Engine, 264.
  33. (33)  Cody Ware(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 209.
  34. (14)  William Byron (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 199.
  35. (12)  Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, Accident, 125.
  36. (36)  James Davison, Chevrolet, Accident, 50.
  37. (15)  Michael McDowell (P), Ford, Accident, 30.

Average Speed of Race Winner:  121.279 mph.

Time of Race:  4 Hrs, 8 Mins, 1 Secs. Margin of Victory:  .212 Seconds.

Caution Flags:  11 for 52 laps.

Lead Changes:  18 among 10 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   R. Blaney (P) 1-14;K. Busch (P) 15-27;E. Jones 28-29;K. Harvick (P) 30-49;J. Gase(i) 50;D. Hamlin (P) 51-80;R. Blaney (P) 81-83;D. Hamlin (P) 84-121;K. Larson (P) 122-158;C. Bell (P) 159-165;K. Larson (P) 166-196;C. Bell (P) 197-199;K. Larson (P) 200-232;R. Chastain 233;K. Larson (P) 234-269;D. Hamlin (P) 270-278;M. Truex Jr. (P) 279;K. Larson (P) 280-298;D. Hamlin (P) 299-367.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  Kyle Larson (P) 5 times for 156 laps; Denny Hamlin (P) 4 times for 146 laps; Kevin Harvick (P) 1 time for 20 laps; Ryan Blaney (P) 2 times for 17 laps; Kurt Busch (P) 1 time for 13 laps; Christopher Bell (P) 2 times for 10 laps; Erik Jones 1 time for 2 laps; Ross Chastain 1 time for 1 lap; Joey Gase(i) 1 time for 1 lap; Martin Truex Jr. (P) 1 time for 1 lap.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 11,5,1,12,4,19,8,10,42,22

Stage #2 Top Ten: 5,20,42,11,4,1,22,9,12,7

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 6 2021
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