NASCAR | Need for strategy comes to screeching halt

Denny Hamlin drives in Turn 1 during a NASCAR Monster Cup auto race at Darlington Raceway, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
AP Photo/Terry Renna

Who needs smooth pit stops and good tires when simply having the fastest car in the NASCAR field will work? Denny Hamlin overcame some self-inflicted adversity to win Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C., at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”

Stop. Wait, go. Now stop.

Denny Hamlin, leading Kyle Busch by about 8 seconds, intended to pit on Lap 314 of 367 to change tires. But Hamlin could not slow his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in time and he missed the pit entrance, nearly hitting the inside wall in the process. Hamlin got back on the track after losing several seconds, then came to the pits on the next lap alongside teammate Busch. Hamlin was 20-plus seconds behind the lead when he came back out but used his fresher tires to chase down leader Martin Truex Jr.

With three laps to go Truex — using tires even older than Hamlin’s on an unforgiving Darlington surface that famously chews up old racing rubber — brushed the outside wall. Hamlin sailed by and Truex, by now on a flat tire, limped home eighth.

Clincher for Truex

He didn’t win but Truex earned two more stage victories and clinched the regular-season championship. He already has 37 playoff bonus points (17 for stage wins, 20 for his four victories) and now will add 15 more for leading the points after 26 races. He’ll carry those bonus points into each stage of the playoffs for as long as he advances. But as Truex was interviewed by NBCSN, he looked too spent to focus on the playoffs.

“I think we could have held (Hamlin) off,” Truex said with a rueful laugh.

Three try to hang tight

Speaking of the playoffs, three drivers are in on points — unless they’re not. Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray are more than 90 points ahead of the next best non-winner, Clint Bowyer. So at worst two of the three will advance to the postseason. And if a previous 2017 race winner takes victory on Saturday at Richmond, all three will go. But if a driver outside the current postseason cutoff — Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or any other — should win at Richmond, one of that trio will miss out. And because Elliott is just two points ahead of Kenseth, who in turn is one point up on McMurray, nobody can relax. Except those who have banked victories this year.

Best in class

Kurt Busch was third, his best finish since winning the Daytona 500. He said “I’m not going to (complain) about their speed” in regard to the JGR Toyotas which finished 1-2. In fact, Busch’s run was the best for any Stewart Haas Ford since Kevin Harvick was second at Pocono in July.

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