Denny Hamlin swept the weekend races at Darlington, coming from behind in both cases. In the Cup race, he had a strong car but Martin Truex, Jr once again looked like the class of the field after starting on the front row and winning both stages. And if you add to that the fact that Hamlin missed the entrance to pit road late in the race, well, you pretty much thought the race for him was over. But that’s where you’d be wrong.
Martin Truex, Jr had the lead after Hamlin’s faux pas and the 78 team decided to stay out, probably hoping for a caution. But none came. The final 100 laps were all under green putting a premium on tires, not fuel. And that’s when the magic happened for Hamlin. With just a couple of laps to go, he had charged through the field on fresh tires to get within striking distance of Truex. Truex blew a tire, got his Darlington stripe and that was all Hamlin needed to cruise to his second win of the season and his second Southern 500 win.
Truex still won the “regular” season although there is one race left. He not only garnered all the stage points again, he got an additional 15 for the regular season title. Those points will stay with him throughout the playoffs. He has almost twice as many playoff points (37) as the next closest driver, Kyle Busch (20). He may add to that pile in the final race at Richmond. I think we all need to see how the points system works after Richmond to get a grasp on what it means. And we may really not understand the implications until the first 3 playoff races are over.
Toyota claimed 5 of the top 10 positions, Chevy had 3 and Ford 2. Impressive in their Toyota’s were Kyle Busch in 2nd, Erik Jones in 5th, Kenseth in 6th and Truex limping to 8th. Kevin Harvick’s Ford wound up 9th after starting on the pole and leading 22 laps. Harvick had some pit issues and never regained his hold on the lead. Even if he had, I am not sure he had anything for the Toyota’s.
Clint Bowyer had an engine expire very early in the race making Richmond a must win for him. Dale Earnhardt, Jr also failed to win having to pit for a flat tire ending his attempt at a top 10 finish. He will also need to win at Richmond in order to move on to the playoffs. He will also be without crew chief Greg Ives, to the delight of many in Jr. Nation, after having missing lug nuts in the post-race inspection.
Joey Logano is also in a must win position after another flat race. The drivers chasing the final 3 playoff positions are Chase Elliott (up 2 on Kenseth), Matt Kenseth (up 1 on McMurray) and Jamie McMurray. Should another driver without a win take the checkers at Richmond, it will be one of those 3 missing the playoffs. Logano is out unless he wins. Logano has 2 wins at Richmond in the last 5 years and ranks 2nd behind Kevin Harvick. But in the night race specifically, he isn’t as good and ranks 12th.
Hamlin won the Richmond night race last year and looks like he is on a roll, something fantasy fans will be paying attention to. It should also be another strong track for the Toyota’s.
Personally, I don’t see one of the bubble drivers winning and I think Bowyer and Logano miss the playoffs. The only way I see Bowyer getting in is if McMurray, Kenseth or Elliott have trouble early. But what do I know? It’s been an interesting year.
In any case, this should be a good race with everyone without a win, going for a win. At this point, teams have nothing to lose. The only drivers that may stick to point racing are the aforementioned three bubble drivers. They just have to finish better than Bowyer and pray Logano doesn’t win.
As much as I’d like to see Earnhardt win and make the playoffs in his final season, the team will really need to step up their program in order to make that happen. This isn’t make the top 5 and feel good, this is win it and win it now. So far we haven’t seen much of that this season from the 88.
Let’s get jiggy with it!