Playing a late-race strategy to his favor, Denny Hamlin emerged victorious in the rain-shortened Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway. The win was Hamlin’s second of this season, third at Darlington and the 39th of his NASCAR Cup Series career, (which moved him into a tie with Matt Kenseth and Tim Flock on the all-time Cup wins list). In addition, Hamlin became the second multi-winner of this year’s Cup season and to win the first NASCAR Cup race on Wednesday night since 1984.
The starting lineup was based on the results from Sunday’s first Darlington race, May 17, with the top-20 finishers from Sunday being inverted for Wednesday night’s event. Ryan Preece, who finished 20th on Sunday, started on pole position while Ty Dillon, who finished 19th, joined Preece on the front row.
B.J. McLeod and Corey LaJoie were sent to the rear of the field due to multiple technical inspection failures. In addition, McLeod was assessed a drive-through penalty on pit road at the start of the race. Gray Gaulding and J.J. Yeley were also sent to the rear of the field for driver changes. Erik Jones was sent to the rear due to unapproved adjustments after his car was impounded.
When the green flag dropped, Ty Dillon, who started on the inside lane, took the lead early from Preece. It did not take long for the first caution flag of the race to fly on the third lap when rookie John Hunter Nemechek spun after contact with Kenseth entering Turn 4. He made contact with the outside wall and slid below the apron without being hit by the oncoming field. He limped to his pit stall with left-rear damage and a flat left-rear tire.
Restarting on the outside lane on the eighth lap, Dillon maintained the lead through Turn 1 while Preece was quickly overtaken by Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney along with Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto for position. Two laps later, Logano made a move on the outside lane to take the lead from Dillon on Lap 10. The caution returned a lap later when Nemechek was involved in another single-car incident, this time in the backstretch.
When the field restarted on Lap 13, Dillon received a strong launch to reassume the lead over Logano in Turn 1, but was overtaken by Logano in Turn 3. Logano was able to retain the lead through the competition caution on Lap 25.
Under caution, the majority of the field pitted for four tires and Bowyer was able to beat the field off of pit road. When the race restarted on Lap 31, Bubba Wallace, who was one of five drivers who pitted on Lap 13, remained on track as the leader. It did not take long, however, for Bowyer on fresh tires to overtake Wallace for the lead. From there, he was able to maintain a reasonable gap over the field. By Lap 40, he was holding a 1.37 second lead over Blaney. Meanwhile, Alex Bowman, who started 19th, had worked his way to fourth behind Logano, while Kevin Harvick, who started 20th, had only raced his way up to 17th.
While Bowyer continued to lead, Martin Truex Jr., who restarted eighth, wasted no time marching his way to the front. By Lap 56, he was in second after overtaking Bowman for position. He was not, however, able to make up the deficit to Bowyer as Bowyer claimed the first stage by over three seconds over Truex. Blaney, Bowman and Logano finished in the top five under the first stage. Aric Almirola, who dodged a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire violation under the competition caution due to the tire getting hit out of the hands of one of his tire carriers, was sixth. Chase Elliott, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Preece rounded out the top 10.
Under the stage break, Bowyer maintained the lead following a stellar service by his pit crew while Blaney moved into the runner-up spot over Truex. Bowman exited fourth while Matt Kenseth gained four spots up to fifth following his pit stop. Cole Custer was assessed a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire violation.
On a Lap 69 restart, the start of the second stage, Blaney mounted a challenge for the lead on the inside lane, but Bowyer was able to maintain the advantage through Turn 4. One lap later, Preece, who was running inside the top 10, had smoke billowing out of his car, but he was able to nurse his car back to pit road without drawing a caution. He would retire due to a mechanical issue.
On Lap 72, Chris Buescher spun following contact with Michael McDowell in Turns 1 and 2, but was able to prevent his car from sustaining further damage and without being hit by anyone else. Under caution, the top-13 cars led by Bowyer remained on track while Blaney led the rest of the field in pitting.
The following restart, on Lap 77, Bowyer maintained the lead but was pursued by Martin Truex Jr. Following another caution on Lap 82 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecked in Turn 2, Bowyer led a bevy of competitors to pit road, giving the lead to Truex, who was one of 10 competitors who stayed out on track.
As the field restarted on Lap 87, Harvick mounted a challenge on the inside through Turn 3, but Truex maintained the lead. Five laps later, Blaney, who ran up front, made an unscheduled pit stop for repairs after making earlier contact with the wall and sustaining right-side damage to his No. 12 Ford.
On the 100th lap, Harvick took the lead from Truex and a lap later, Bowyer, who restarted 10th on fresh tires, raced his way back to second. Eight laps later, Cole Custer drew the race’s seventh caution after making contact with the Turn 2 wall and cutting his right-rear tire.
The leaders pitted under caution and Bowyer reassumed the lead followed by Truex while Harvick fell back to third. Daniel Suarez remained on track to lead a lap before he pitted, giving the lead back to Bowyer on Lap 111 and prior to the restart on Lap 113.
When the field restarted with 13 laps remaining in the second stage, Bowyer retained the lead while Elliott made his way to second over Truex. William Byron and Erik Jones followed pursuit inside the top five ahead of Harvick. Though he encountered lapped traffic in the closing laps, Bowyer was able to navigate his way through to win the second stage over Elliott and Truex as he collected additional bonus points towards the postseason. Jones, who rallied from starting at the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments, finished fourth followed by Harvick. William Byron, Hamlin, Bowman, Logano and DiBenedetto finished in the top 10.
Under the stage break, Harvick edged Bowyer to reassume the lead on pit road. When the field restarted on Lap 133, teammates Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher, both of whom remained on track, led the field back to green. Newman received a push from Bowyer to take the lead while Harvick made a three-wide move over Jones and Buescher in an attempt for the lead. One lap later, Jones made a bold three-wide move over Bowyer and Newman to take the lead entering Turn 1. Elliott made his way to second while Bowyer fell back to fifth and was locked in a heated battle with Newman.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch, who struggled with pace in the early stages of the race and endured radio issues, made his first appearance in the top five. By lap 145, Newman fell back to 13th and Buescher to 27th.
On Lap 150, Jones made contact with the wall but continued to lead. Eleven laps later, Elliott used the high lane to take the lead over Jones, whose car became tight following the contact with the wall. Hamlin made his way to third ahead of Harvick, Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Truex Jr. By Lap 168, Hamlin moved to second behind Elliott.
As the race dwindled in the final laps, green flag pit stops commenced with 54 laps remaining as the leaders, starting with Kyle Busch, made their way to pit road for four tires and fuel.
Four laps later, while most of the leaders completed their service, Kenseth spun in Turn 2 below the apron after sustaining a flat right-rear tire and while attempting to nurse his car back to pit road. When the caution flag flew, Brad Keselowski and Brennan Poole were the only lead-lap cars who did not pit as only five cars were scored on the lead lap. Under caution, Keselowski, Poole and Hamlin pitted. Elliott reassumed the lead, Kyle Busch received the free pass after being scored the first car one lap down and 23 cars took the wave around, giving 24 back on the lead lap prior to a restart with 42 laps remaining.
During the restart, Elliott maintained the lead on the outside lane, though he was heavily pressured by Keselowski and Hamlin. With 37 laps remaining, Keselowski drew himself alongside Elliott in an attempt for the lead in Turn 4, but Elliott retained his advantage in Turn 1.
Shortly after, the 10th caution flag flew when Bowyer spun in Turn 4 as a result of a cut right-rear tire from scraping the wall in Turn 2 four laps earlier. Under caution, the leaders pitted except for Hamlin, Poole and DiBenedetto. Following a stellar pit stop, Harvick was able to exit pit road first followed by Kyle Busch. Elliott and Keselowski fell back to fourth and sixth. Poole would later pit, but Hamlin and DiBenedetto retained the front-row starting spots with 34 to go.
On the ensuring restart, with 29 to go, Hamlin was able to launch ahead of the field followed by teammate Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. Once the field made their way back to Turn 4 the following lap, Elliott was able to surge into the runner-up spot behind Hamlin when Kyle Busch turned right and hooked Elliott, sending Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet head-on into the inside wall on the frontstretch. After climbing out of his car, Elliott gestured his displeasure to Busch with a middle-finger salute.
Shortly after, rain started falling on the track under caution as Hamlin remained on track as the leader. With 20 laps remaining, the field made their way to pit road and the race was red-flagged for rain delay.
When the rain continued to fall, NASCAR declared the race official and Hamlin was awarded the win.
“I’ve got my happy face on, made sure I brought [my face mask] with me today,” Hamlin said in a FOX Sports 1 interview. “I just can’t thank FedEx, Toyota, Coca-Cola, Jordan brand, the whole JGR engine, fab shop. The pit crew did a great job today, everybody really. I was pretty happy with how it all turned out. [Darlington]’s a driver’s race track. You can move around and you can do different things to make your car handle and we got it right today.”
Kyle Busch settled in second and was met by Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, on pit road after the race to discuss the incident, where Busch apologized for his involvement. Harvick finished third followed by Keselowski and Jones. Logano, Almirola, Jimmie Johnson, DiBenedetto and Truex rounded out the top 10.
The race featured 17 lead changes with 13 different leaders. There were 11 cautions for 54 laps.
Harvick leads the regular-season series standings by 34 points over Joey Logano and 39 over Alex Bowman.
1. Denny Hamlin, 12 laps led
2. Kyle Busch
3. Kevin Harvick, 10 laps led
4. Brad Keselowski, seven laps led
5. Erik Jones, 27 laps led
6. Joey Logano, 19 laps led
7. Aric Almirola
8. Jimmie Johnson
9. Matt DiBenedetto
10. Martin Truex Jr., 16 laps led
11. Christopher Bell
12. William Byron
13. Tyler Reddick
14. Ryan Newman, five laps led
15. Kurt Busch
16. Bubba Wallace, three laps led
17. Michael McDowell
18. Alex Bowman
19. Ty Dillon, eight laps led
20. Austin Dillon
21. Ryan Blaney
22. Clint Bowyer, 71 laps led, Stage 1 & 2 winner
23. Chris Buescher
24. Corey LaJoie, one lap down
25. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one lap down
26. Quin Houff, one lap down
27. Daniel Suarez, one lap down, one lap led
28. J.J. Yeley, one lap down
29. Joey Gase, one lap down
30. Matt Kenseth, two laps down
31. Cole Custer, two laps down
32. Gray Gaulding, two laps down
33. Timmy Hill, four laps down
34. Garrett Smithley, four laps down
35. John Hunter Nemechek, six laps down
36. B.J. McLeod, six laps down
37. Brennan Poole, OUT, one lap led
38. Chase Elliott, OUT, 28 laps led
39. Ryan Preece, OUT