AVONDALE, AZ – Denny Hamlin did exactly what he needed to do this weekend at the ISM Raceway. See, Hamlin was arguably the hottest driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Unfortunately, one bad finish in Texas (28th) put him from 23 points up to 20 points down with one race to get to Homestead.
Hamlin, had himself a weekend in Phoenix. He had the fastest car in practice on Friday on both short run as well as long run speeds, qualified third in his No. 11 Toyota and scored 19 stage points in Sunday’s race.
Unfortunately for him, Joey Logano, the guy he was chasing for the final playoff spot, scored 17 stage points. Each won a stage in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500. That set up Hamlin to have to win the race outright to make it in.
He’d do just that.
Hamlin, passed Logano on Lap 176 and would lead all but four laps to the end to earn his sixth victory of the season and 37th of his career. The win ties him with Bobby Isaac for 22nd on the all-time wins list as for the second time of his career, Hamlin makes it to the Championship 4.
This was the equivalent to a walk off homerun to get to the World Series. But, his win which looked like a runaway, almost didn’t happen.
Hamlin, held over a seven second lead in the closing laps, but John Hunter Nemechek brought out the fifth final caution on Lap 302. Luckily for Hamlin, Logano fell hard from restarting on Lap 176 in the lead to a lap down in 62 laps. He was a lap down at the time and would get his lap back when Hamlin and the other seven cars on the lead lap hit pit lane.
Hamlin’s crew chief made a questionable pit call there too. They had such a large advantage hitting pit road but still took two tires. So did Ryan Blaney. Everyone else took four tires. For Hamlin, now that Logano was on the lead lap, he still had to win. If he let Blaney by or anyone else, Logano would be in, not Hamlin.
Everyone questioned why they just didn’t take four tires and restart on the front row with four fresh tires.
It didn’t end up mattering.
Hamlin, had a great launch and earned his second win in Phoenix and Joe Gibbs Racing’s third straight and fourth in the last five tries. This was Hamlin’s fifth top five in the last six races on the season and six in the last seven overall.
Kyle Busch would quickly pass Blaney on the final restart and bring his No. 18 Toyota home runner-up. This was Busch’s fourth straight top two finish in Phoenix and eighth top four in his last nine Phoenix starts. While he hasn’t won a race since June 2 (22 races ago), he’s marching onto the Championship 4 too, as he joins his teammates Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. in the final four.
Blaney, fell to third in his No. 12 Ford. This was his second straight third place finish on the 1.015-mile Arizona oval and fourth top eight in his last five starts on the season.
Kyle Larson finished fourth in his No. 42 Chevrolet, his fifth top six in his last seven Phoenix starts, but like Blaney, fell short of advancing to the Championship 4.
Both Kevin Harvick and Truex Jr. who knows that they will be in the final round, finished fifth and sixth respectively. Logano, was ninth while Chase Elliott crashed on Lap 165 and finished 39th.