TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Denny Hamlin put himself in position to finally win in the playoffs by hanging at the back to avoid the carnage of the messiest and longest race in Talladega Superspeedway history.
His sweeping three-wide pass in triple overtime Sunday brought an end to the sloppiest race of the season. The Daytona 500 winner surged to the win coming out of the final turn — it was the 58th lead change of a race that went nearly 32 miles, or 12 laps, longer than scheduled.
Talladega was pocked with 13 cautions, two more than the record, and nearly every title contender had some sort of damage. Only six of the 12 made it to the finish.
Hamlin insisted lagging the No. 11 Toyota at the back of the field all day, waiting to pounce at the end, was his strategy all along. Either that, or he was simply the last driver standing when given the chance to snap a skid that started with the playoffs one month ago.
“I hate to say it, but you have to play the game. You have to get to the next round,” Hamlin said. “To win the championship, you have to win the last race and you have to get to the last race. For us, we played the strategy to play the numbers to make sure we got locked in.”
Fitting for this particular wreck-fest was that Hamlin’s win needed official review. He had gone below the yellow out-of-bounds line during the third overtime, but NASCAR ruled the move was legal.
“They were crashing in front of us,” Hamlin shrugged. “Obviously, I got forced down there.”
The crowd of 15,000 — the most allowed to attend the Alabama superspeedway — booed Hamlin as he was declared the winner. He dismissed any notion of a controversy over the yellow line rule, noting it had been called by NASCAR the same way the entire race.
The race went more than four hours, so long that it was moved from NBC to NBC Sports Network because local news and then NFL football needed the big network.
The brutality of the day was punctuated by Kyle Busch, who was at last given a merciful exit when he was collected in an accident during the second overtime.
The reigning Cup champion is still winless this season and on the verge of playoff elimination. He was involved in a dizzying number of incidents at Talladega, including a 13-car accident in which older brother, Kurt, went airborne over Cole Custer. That accident brought out the first of two red-flag stoppages.
Hamlin raced to his 44th Cup victory, tying him with childhood hero Bill Elliott on the career list. He also earned the automatic berth into the next round of the playoffs, joining Kurt Busch, winner last week at home track Las Vegas but one of six playoff drivers that failed to reach the finish at Talladega.
“You’re on top one week with a win and everything’s fantastic,” Busch said. “And then this week we’re here at Talladega … and next thing you know, I’m going for one of the wildest rides I’ve ever been in.”
An hour after the finish, NASCAR rescinded a penalty on Chase Elliott, which moved him up to fifth in the final running order — the highest of the playoff drivers behind Hamlin. Austin Dillon was the next highest-finishing playoff driver at 12th.
Four of 12 drivers will be eliminated next week at The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The bottom four in the standings are Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Dillon.
Almirola was wrecked while leading near the end of the first stage, and Bowyer triggered the 13-car crash in which Kurt Busch went airborne. The wall was damaged in that crash which brought out the first red flag for repairs.
The second red flag stopped the second overtime, right before Elliott took the lead. At almost any other track, Elliott would have taken the checkered flag before that accident. But Talladega’s finish line is unusually close to Turn 1 and Elliott had not made it there before a crash behind him.
He then had to pit from the lead for fuel because he didn’t have enough gas for the additional, unplanned miles.
Meanwhile, blue-collar fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto stood devastated on pit road after a second-place finish.
That was then yanked away as he was dropped to 21st after NASCAR penalized him for forcing William Byron below the line. DiBenedetto was initially denied his first career victory a year ago by Hamlin the same week DiBenedetto learned he was out of a job.
This defeat came as DiBenedetto waits and wonders if his contract will be extended by Wood Brothers Racing or if he’ll be one-and-done and moved aside for Austin Cindric.
“I feel like this is the same story a lot of times, just heartbreak,” he said. “My wife and I have had a stressful week again just with the uncertainty. I mean, that was pure desperation, but that’s how I drive every race.”
The final finishing order showed Jones, himself looking for a job for 2021, finishing second to teammate Hamlin for Joe Gibbs Racing in a 1-2 for Toyota.
Ty Dillon was third in a Chevrolet for Germain Racing, which late last month sold its charter to Hamlin for Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan to start a team around driver Bubba Wallace. It was the best career finish for the team and Dillon used it to lobby for a seat next year.