DARLINGTON, S.C. – In an unusually clean Bojangles’ Southern 500 Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, Denny Hamlin outsmarted Martin Truex Jr. in a war of tires to capture the crown jewel event for the second time in his career.
Completing a sweep of the weekend and carrying a paint scheme honoring Virginia modified legend Ray Hendrick, Hamlin used 10-lap fresher tires to run down late-race leader Truex from 23 seconds back, taking the top spot for good coming to two laps to go after Truex lost a right front tire entering Turn 3.
From there, the Chesterfield, Va. native drove off to a 2.599-second victory over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, notching his 31st-career Cup win and second of the season.
“That was as hard as I could drive (at the end),” said Hamlin, who led a race-high 124 laps. “We got the flying No. 11 going and it was flying. This track is just amazing and I love this place. This is my second (Southern 500 win) and this one is sweeter, to go through the adversity that we did right there … with missing pit lane. I knew I had to drive my tail off to get it back and I did. That’s all I had.”
Usually a race that sees a rash of caution flags, Sunday night’s race saw only eight yellows for 38 of the 367 laps.
Hamlin’s late-race heroics gave him his second-career weekend sweep, both coming at Darlington.
But the greater satisfaction came from being able to “give back” and honor the short-track heroes he grew up watching as a kid in Virginia with a big victory.
“This means everything as far as I’m concerned,” Hamlin said of winning in the Ray Hendrick scheme. “This is a throwback to my history. This is for Roy Hendrick, Wayne Patterson, Eddie Johnson … the short track guys that I grew up watching, this was a throwback to them.”
“Back in 1985, I was at Southside Speedway in the stands, watching them race and learning everything I could from them. This is a throwback to them and their history. Rick Hendrick, I can’t thank him enough because he got the modified back together; he was very excited. Rick actually got his first job working on the Flying Eleven, so hats off to him. I’m so proud to be back in victory lane here at the Southern 500.”
The race win was in doubt after Hamlin missed pit road with 54 laps left, sliding the tires and losing an immense amount of time on-track, but the mishap motivated the driver and he was not to be denied.
“It was a motivator, for sure … but the team actually did a good job of getting me reined in and reminding me to set up my passes and not over-cook things,” Hamlin explained. “(Darlington) is a big rhythm track and I just had to settle down and take my time because here, sometimes going faster isn’t always the fastest way around.”
With the final 102 laps of Sunday night’s race going green-to-checkered, tires were at a premium and when drivers pitted ultimately became the key to victory lane.
Truex pitted on lap 305, having to go 52 laps on his final set of Goodyear Eagles, while Hamlin and Busch stayed out until lap 315 and thus had a 42-lap run to make it to the checkered flag.
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