Sporting Ray Hendrick’s colors, Denny Hamlin overcame near disaster and capped off Throwback Weekend at Darlington with a clean sweep after regular season champion Martin Truex, Jr.’s right front tire went down with three laps to go.
One word best describes Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, tradition. In what’s become NASCAR’s most anticipated weekends of the year, several NASCAR legends were honored Sunday as most of the 40-car field gave their tributes by racing iconic paint schemes that made the sport flourish.
Whether the colors were made famous by Mark Martin (Trevor Bayne and Clint Bowyer) and Kyle Petty (Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson) or those who made a name of themselves elsewhere such as Jim Whitt (Cole Whitt) and Ray Hendrick (Denny Hamlin), it’s a time of celebration and a trip down memory lane.
In the end, it was Hendrick’s “Flying 11,” driven by Denny Hamlin who reigned supreme in Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, leading a race-high 124 of 367 laps. It’s the first throwback car to win at “Throwback Weekend” since the program was introduced in 2015.
It’s Hamlin’s first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Darlington since 2010 and his second victory of 2017. The win was also a weekend sweep after winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in thrilling fashion.
Despite taming Darlington, the “Lady in Black” almost tamed Hamlin with 54 laps to go after missing the entrance of pit road and it appeared victory was gone.
However, Hamlin’s perseverance blossomed as one-by-one, he was regaining track position and was in 2nd with 20 laps to go.
As the laps wind down, Hamlin was inching closer on race leader Martin Truex, Jr., who won the first two stages and clinched the regular season championship. Lap traffic got in Hamlin’s way and lost a bit of ground.
But with three laps to go, Truex, Jr.’s right front tire went down and received several “Darlington Stripes” at the entrance of turn three. Truex, Jr. coasted around the track and finished eighth as Hamlin celebrated in victory lane.
Hamlin’s teammate Kyle Busch finished in second. Followed by Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray.
Hamlin described his comeback as one of his hardest drives he’s ever done.
“I drove my ass off. That’s as hard as I can drive. We got the “Flying 11” and it was flying,” Hamlin said. “This track is just amazing. I love this race track. This is my second one but this one’s sweeter. To go through the adversity, we did right there. Missing pit lane and I knew I had to drive my tail off to get it back and that’s all I had.”
In victory lane, Hamlin dedicated his victory to his short track heroes at Southside Speedway in Midlothian, Virginia and Rick Hendrick.
“This is for Roy Hendrick, Bugs Hairfield, Wayne Patterson and Eddie Johnson. The short track guys that I grew up watching, this was a throwback to them. Back in 1985-89, I was at Southside Speedway in the stands watching them race and learning everything I could from them,” Hamlin said. “I can’t thank Rick Hendrick enough because he got Ray’s modified back together. He was very excited. Rick actually got his first job on the “Flying 11,” so hats off to him.”
Hamlin’s win puts him in a three-way tie for fifth in the playoff standings but is seeded sixth as Brad Keselowski has 14 playoff points to Hamlin’s 12.
A disappointed Truex, Jr. said the flat tire costing him a second straight Southern 500 victory was tough.
“Sometimes those things just don’t go your way and tonight not much did. We had a fast car. Took the lead four or five different times and just had a phenomenal race car in the long runs. At the end, it was just two laps too long and blew a right front so I didn’t see that coming,” Truex, Jr. said. “I really didn’t have any issues all night in the right front. Circumstances were a little bit different with a green flag stop and run them pretty long. We had him till that but that’s the way it goes.”
Despite losing the race, Truex, Jr. was satisfied about winning the regular season championship. The reward is an additional 15 playoff points once the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 17.
“Proud of the regular season championship deal. That’s huge for this team and huge for me in my career,” Truex, Jr. said. “A lot of points for the championship bonus so let’s go and try to get more points next week and go to the playoffs.”
Truex, Jr.’s regular season championship lead going into Richmond is 107 points over Kyle Busch.
With one race remaining in the regular season, McMurray holds the 16th and final playoff spot. McMurray is ahead of 17th place Clint Bowyer by 91 points after an early engine failure diminished Bowyer’s chances of making the playoffs by points, finishing 40th.
Alongside McMurray, Kenseth and Chase Elliott are the only drivers inside the top 16 without a win and either one of the three can be eliminated if anyone outside the top 16 wins at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia Sept. 9. Hamlin is the defending fall winner.
Joey Logano needs a sweep at the 0.75-mile oval to make the playoffs. Despite winning the race April 30, it was encumbered after NASCAR issued an L1-level penalty for rear suspension violation during teardown. Logano finished 18th Sunday.