On a night where many NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers were undone by wrecks and pit road miscues, Denny Hamlin stayed out of trouble and narrowly held off Kyle Larson to get his first win of the season in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Hamlin, who advances automatically to the Cup playoff Round of 12 with the victory, led the final 69 laps. But he was kept honest in the closing laps by Larson, who overtook him during the summer for the regular season title.
Then on the final lap, Larson made one last charge. Through Turns 3 and 4, Larson repeatedly tagged the wall in a desperate attempt to pass Hamlin.
But Hamlin stayed against the wall himself, keeping Larson behind him off Turn 4 before beating him to the checkered flag by two-tenths of a second.
“He drove it in past the limit of the car and the tire,” Hamlin told NBCSN after the race. “But I knew he was coming. I was a little bit conservative that last lap because I knew I had about a four car length lead. I didn’t think he was gonna go that deep.”
In his own comments to NBCSN, Larson said he got to Hamlin too quickly on the final lap.
“I was hoping he was gonna run that diamond (line) to try and be safe and I could squirt to his outside,” he said. “I gave it everything I had. I didn’t want to wreck him. I just wanted to try and get to his outside there.”
Hamlin caught a break that helped set him up for the win on Lap 319, when Ryan Blaney spun to bring out the caution. At the time, Hamlin was leading while on a strategy play, running longer than the others.
A subsequent pit road speeding penalty for Martin Truex Jr. put Hamlin in control of the race. From there, Hamlin managed a gap to Larson over the final run before the latter made his valiant – but futile – last-lap attack.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Denny Hamlin
STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Larson
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Chastain’s third-place finish was his third top five of the season and his first since going runner-up at Nashville Superspeedway in June. “I can go fast, but I can’t quite race with them with my starts and my restarts,” Chastain told NBCSN about what he needed to catch Hamlin and Larson. “I’ve got some work to do there.” … Harvick recovered for fifth after pitting on Lap 288 for what he thought was a loose wheel; his team said that was not the case … Two more non-playoff drivers completed the top 10 finishers: Chris Buescher in ninth, Austin Dillon in 10th.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Seven of the 16 playoff drivers were officially involved in incidents Sunday night, with several others bitten by loose wheels … Worst off among the playoff drivers were Michael McDowell (Lap 31), Kyle Busch (Lap 125), William Byron (Lap 200) and Chase Elliott (Lap 327), who all crashed out … Of the group, McDowell had the slimmest margin of error in trying to advance to the next round – and it’s now gone. “We know what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to go out and win a race,” he said.
NOTABLE: Hamlin’s fourth career Darlington win now makes him the leader among active drivers at the track.
NEXT: Richmond Raceway – Saturday, Sept. 11 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)