Hamlin Finally Nails An Elusive Big One – The 600

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 31 2022

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin took the green flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway and then, several hours later, the checkers. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

CONCORD, N.C. – Entering this year’s Coca-Cola 600 Denny Hamlin possessed three Daytona 500 victories and an identical number of wins in the Southern 500, but stock car racing’s longest event had always alluded him. 

That changed late Sunday night to Hamlin’s surprise when he defeated Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch by 0.119 second.

“Considering our day, I was going to be pretty content with a fourth-place finish,” said Hamlin, who averaged 118.703 mph in the race slowed by 18 caution flags for 90 laps. 

“We knew we didn’t have the fastest car, the best car by any means, but we just stayed in the race. We didn’t make any mistakes, gave ourselves an opportunity when the opportunity arose for us. We managed the race.”

The victory provided Hamlin with his 48th career win, tying him with Herb Thomas for 16th on the NASCAR Cup Series all-time win list. He also joined William Byron and Ross Chastain as the only Cup drivers with two victories this season. 

Hamlin faced Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 without crew chief Chris Gabehart, jackman Derrell Edwards and tire changer Blake Houston, who were suspended for four events for a wheel falling off Hamlin’s Toyota during the Dover race earlier this month. However, Gabehart’s substitute, Sam McAualy was no stranger to the pit box.

“He’s actually done this before … filled in,” Hamlin said. “I was very happy with his confidence in the calls he was making tonight. Obviously, he’s got a great mentor in Chris Gabehart who he’s worked under now for the last three years. It’s a big difference from when he stepped in to crew chief other times. He’ll be a crew chief full-time one day.”

 After starting on the pole, Hamlin never was a factor in the race until the scheduled 400-lap event entered overtime. He led only seven of the first 10 laps and never led again until lap 405 when the longest race in NASCAR history – 619.5 miles – entered its second overtime. 

“There’s quite a few times through the race that the car wasn’t right,” McAualy said. “He could make up some ground on a restart, then we’d start to fall back a little bit on both sides of the balance.

“I think the key was him (Hamlin) fighting to get those spots to keep us up there in the top 10. We were on the back end of getting a couple of stage points. (It) started to turn when he got multiple good restarts in Stage four.”

McAualy pointed to the race’s attrition rate as instrumental in Hamlin being in position to take advantage of the overtime opportunity. Only 20 of the 37 cars that started the event were running at the finish in the race that took 5 hours 13 minutes and 8 seconds to complete. Sixteen of those cars were on the lead lap when the 413-lap race concluded. 

“I think Denny understood that from the get-go and even mentioned it at one point at halfway, like this is a survival race,” McAualy said. “There was a couple times we had to debate staying out or pitting. I’d say the last one for sure coming down to take four (tires) was the hardest.

“I think we were in a unique spot in the sense that we knew we needed some sort of advantage to go up there and win. We didn’t really feel like we wanted to be in a position where Denny had to defend because tires were falling off quite a bit and the left sides were wearing as much as the right.”

When the race restarted following the 17th caution flag that took the race into overtime, Hamlin was third. He avoided the seven-car crash that eliminated several front-runners as they charged to the white flag by backing off earlier in the lap, then ducking low and zipping underneath the spinning cars. 

When the field lined up for the second overtime restart, Hamlin led, Chastain was second and Busch third. On the restart, Busch and Hamlin raced side-by-side for a lap while Chastain lost ground due to an ill-handling race car. Hamlin, who was on the inside, pulled ahead of Busch as they exited turn two and never relinquished the No. 1 spot as they dashed to the checkered flag.

Even though Hamlin won the 2015 All-Star race at Charlotte, this was his first points victory at the track that opened in 1960. He had competed in 17 Coca-Cola 600s and at age 41 he desperately wanted this race as did many of his crew. One crew member said he had been waiting 17 years for the victory.  

“From a team aspect of building a car that’s capable of going the full distance and being able to compete at a high level the entire night, more so than any other race, you just feel like it has to be a full team effort to win this race,” McAualy said. “I’ve had the privilege of winning the Daytona 500, but it’s definitely a different feeling than the Daytona 500. It’s very special.” 

The Cup Series moves to Madison, Ill., this weekend for its June 5 debut at World Wide Technology Raceway.


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 31 2022
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