After going winless in the 26-race regular season, Denny Hamlin, who was second to Kevin Harvick in wins last year with seven, finally claimed his first NASCAR Cup Series win of 2021 Sunday night at Darlington Raceway in the Cook Out Southern 500, the first race of the 10-race playoffs.
“It was a matter of time. We can’t just keep leading inside 10 laps to go every week and not get a win,” Hamlin said. “Yesterday was some unique circumstances but, man, I tell you what, I couldn’t be happier for this win and now to move to the round of 12.”
The win was Hamlin’s fourth-career Darlington victory, his third in the Southern 500.
“Southern 500, it’s a big win. I love this race track. It’s by far my favorite race track,” Hamlin said. “It’s just great; can’t thank the Offerpad guys enough for everything they do and FedEx and Shady Ray’s, the Jordan Brand, just everyone — Coca-Cola, Toyota, everyone at JGR that builds these fast cars.”
Kyle Larson challenged Hamlin for the lead on the final lap, but the regular-season champion and 2021 wins leader finished second.
“I kind of — we got to the white, and I was like, ‘Well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something.’ Honestly, got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave everything I had. I didn’t want to wreck him. I just wanted to try to get to his outside, there, but he did a great job not really making any mistakes during the last run, and I was having to push really hard in second to try and just stay with him.
“Was hoping we’d catch some sort of traffic, but we never really did. Our HendrickCars.com Chevy was really good out front; just in traffic I would get stuck. Like, in traffic, I just got stuck really bad, and then, there at the end, losing control of the race really hurt us, but all-in-all a great day, good points day. Pit crew did great. Cliff [Daniels, crew chief] made some good changes in the car, so try again next week.”
Ross Chastain finished third in the 367-lap race.
“I can go fast. I just can’t quite race with them, and it starts with my restarts,” Chastain said. “I’ve got some work to do, there, so I gave up the outside to take the bottom to be safe and then Kyle rolls around me. Was able to make one last charge, there, at him at the end, but yeah, I just need to clean up a few things. This McDonald’s car, I think it was the fastest car here tonight, so it’s humbling to come with this CGR group these final 10 races here, a place where my career kind of took a totally different trajectory three years ago, and to have people like Clover and the Moose [Fraternity] and Advent Health on board supporting me and still letting me race three years later, it means the world. I’ve just got to clean up some more, though.”
Larson took the lead from Hamlin on a lap-123 restart and dominated the remainder of the race, including a stage-two win on lap 230. After watching Larson pull away from the field multiple times, a few drivers, Hamlin included, decided on a strategy of stretching a couple of late-race green-flag runs to eliminate one late-race pit stop.
That strategy was negated by a lap-318 caution for Ryan Blaney, but by that time, Hamlin was ahead of Larson. All lead-lap cars pitted during the caution, with Martin Truex Jr. getting off pot road ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin. But Truex was nabbed speeding on pit road, and the resulting penalty handed the lead to Hamlin. Hamlin continued to lead the remainder of the race.
After being sent to the back, Truex pitted, again, for tires during a lap-329 caution for Chase Elliott, the 11th and final yellow flag of the race. On newer tires, Truex was able to drive back up to fourth by the checkered flag.
Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five.
Hamlin won the first stage on lap 115. After pole sitter Blaney, Kurt Busch and Harvick led laps early, Hamlin was first off pit road during a lap-47 caution for Rick Ware Racing teammates Cody Ware and James Davison. Hamlin then led most of the remainder of the first stage, with the exception of a small handful of laps during a cycle of green-flag pit stops around lap 80.
Kurt Busch finished sixth, Brad Keselowski was seventh, Joey Logano eighth, Chris Buescher ninth, and Austin Dillon rounded out the top-10.
“I’m proud of everyone on the Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road Chevy team tonight. To get a top-10 after all of the challenges we faced is a really good night and shows how hard this team works,” Dillon said. “We started off the race a little too free in the Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road Chevrolet, so we pitted during the first caution for adjustments, which really helped our handling issues. Even though we started from the rear, we were able to race our way into the top-10 before finishing the stage 13th. We lost a little something in stage two after the 18 [Kyle Busch] came down on us. We got some fender damage that affected our handling the rest of the night. We also had a bad vibration in the second half of the stage, and it took all we had to stay on the lead lap. It was great get a top-10 after a rough few weeks. I just wish we could have seen what we could have done without that body damage because the #3 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road Chevy was fast tonight.”
Darlington was problematic for several playoff drivers. In addition to Elliott and Blaney, Michael McDowell, Kyle Busch and William Byron were among drivers who wrecked at some point in the race.
“That was a big hit,” Byron said of his lap-200 crash. “It looked like on that pit stop, it looked like we dropped the jack and the left-front was still finishing up. I took off and everything felt okay. I went to pass the No. 00 [Quin Houff] or somebody down the front stretch and was just about to turn into [turn] one and the left-front went down. There was nothing we could do. The guys did an awesome job to fix it. We were running like top-12, I think, even with all the [earlier] right-rear damage, and it’s just terrible. I don’t know, man. That sucks.”