TALLADEGA, Ala. – Denny Hamlin started the season by winning the sport’s biggest race by inches. He saved his season Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in the same manner.
Hamlin advanced to the third round of the Chase by six-thousandths (0.006) of a second when he beat Kurt Busch to the finish line for third place by roughly 2 feet. It was enough to tie Hamlin for the final transfer spot with Austin Dillon, which Hamlin won on a tiebreaker courtesy of his best finish (third) in the second round.
In February, Hamlin won the Daytona 500 by one-hundredth (0.010) of a second.
“We needed some things to fall our way if we didn’t win the race, today things fell our way,” Hamlin said. “The last lap, we went out and earned it.”
Hamlin lined up fourth on the final restart, a green-white-checkered attempt. It was the final lap, however, that determined the final Chase spot. It occurred when Hamlin made a last-minute decision to jump from the bottom lane up high to block a charging Busch.
After derailing Busch’s progress, Hamlin jumped back to the bottom and edged Busch at the finish line.
“I wasn’t sure whether I needed to finish third,” Hamlin said of the final lap. “I told (the team) I didn’t want points updates, but that’s almost when I probably should have got one to figure out what I was going to do. But (Dillon) is in the middle of the pack. He’s fighting and getting positions. He could change positions in the last hundred yards, so you can’t really predict it.
“I knew I just had to try to finish as good as I could. I just somehow was able to hang onto third right there. I know (Kevin Harvick) definitely cut me a break when I was trying to get back down on the bottom line. Like I said, I knew that if I finished inside the top five, we had the tiebreaker with (Dillon). I did know that information. But I didn’t know where Austin was in the field.”
Hamlin succeeded without the help of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, who chose to play defense instead of offense. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards rode far behind the field all afternoon in hopes of missing the expected wrecks. It left Hamlin fighting on his own at the front of the field, which he knew would be the case coming into the day.
“When you have three guys that realistically just don’t need to wreck to get in, and you have one that needs to go out there and almost win to get in, you can’t sacrifice the three guaranteed spots that you got to try and get one more in,” Hamlin said. “That would just be bad gamesmanship … so it was on me to go out there and do it.”
Hamlin moves into Round of 8 in the Chase for the second time in three years under this format. In 2014, the No. 11 advanced all the way to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway before ultimately finishing third in points.
The next three tracks in the round — Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, and Phoenix International Raceway — are all places where Hamlin has won. Not surprisingly, now that he’s escaped Talladega, Hamlin considers his chances for a return trip to the championship round “pretty good.”
“It’s new life for us,” Hamlin said. “We’re on house money at this point. Honestly, the cards were stacked against us before we entered the day, and now we’re moving on, and we have a clean slate. My focus will be on Martinsville solely this week and then after that, we’ll go to Texas and try to do that. It’s just week to week for us at this point, but obviously we have to go out here and perform at a high level if we want to make it to Homestead.”