Denny Hamlin won Sunday’s final Cup Series playoff elimination race at ISM Raceway in a three-lap shootout, fending off teammate Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney and clinching a spot in the championship round in Miami (3 p.m. ET Nov. 17 on NBC).
Hamlin entered the final playoff elimination race as the first driver outside the final four by 20 points. He led 143 of 312 laps and torched the field over the final stage, lapping up to seventh place at one point.
“I can’t believe it,” Hamlin told NBC at the start-finish line. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve it. I put them in a bad hole last week (when he wrecked at Texas). I told them today … I’m going to give them everything I’ve got to make up for the mistake I made last week. That’s all I got.”
The final sprint to the finish was set up by a caution for John Hunter Nemechek with nine laps to go. Hamlin had an eight-second lead on Busch at the time. When the leaders pit, Hamlin’s team elected to take two tires along with Ryan Blaney, while Busch and the rest of the leaders took four tires.
“One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that,” Hamlin said in victory lane. “I pushed for all I had. I mean, that’s all I got. Once we got the big lead there, a little over 10 seconds, I just kind of sat there. I got to thinking about if the caution does come out, I want to lap as many as I can.”
Hamlin will join Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. in the championship round, pitting three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers against Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick. Of the four, Hamlin is the only driver without a Cup title.
With the win, Hamlin joins Harvick as the second driver to win at Phoenix in order to advance to the title round (2014). Harvick went on win in Miami to claim the title.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Denny Hamlin won the stage in a three-lap shootout after restarting fourth following pit stops.
STAGE 2 WINNER: Joey Logano led every green flag lap in the stage to win it over Hamlin and Chase Elliott
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Blaney finished third for the second straight race at ISM Raceway. He ended the Round of 8 with two top fives and an eight-place finish … Kyle Larson has finished sixth or better in his last three starts at ISM Raceway … Martin Truex Jr. (sixth) earned his eighth top-10 finish in the nine playoff races so far.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: After running in the top five most of the day, Chase Elliott lost a tire and backed into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 166, ending his day with a last-place finish in 39th. He finished 32nd or worst in all three Round of 8 races … After Joey Logano won Stage 2, he quickly dropped through the field and was lapped by Denny Hamlin with 75 laps to go. He finished ninth.
“I went from a car that could lead and win a stage and run really well, and from what they told me, it was an air pressure adjustment made it go from a winning car to can’t stay on the lead lap,” Logano told NBC. “One of the tightest things I’ve ever driven. I don’t really understand it. It doesn’t make any sense.”
NOTABLE: Hamlin delivered Joe Gibbs Racing its 18th Cup win of the year. That is tied with Hendrick Motorsports for the most in a single season in the modern era. Toyota claimed its third manufacturer’s title in four years with the win … This the third straight season a Chevrolet driver has failed to make the championship round.
QUOTE OF THE RACE: “I was definitely not wanting to see that last caution. I would have been great with a nice, boring walk-off home run. But it did not turn out that way and forced to make a really tough decision.” — Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, on the late-race caution the resulted in the No. 11 team taking two tires instead of four.
WHAT’S NEXT: Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway at 3 p.m. ET Nov. 17 on NBC.