RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Denny Hamlin hoped a visit to the track he watched races at as a youngster would help kickstart a season that started in an uncharacteristic fashion — poorly.
Thanks to some crafty tire strategy that his team timed right, he got it done.
Hamlin ran down William Byron with five laps to go Sunday and ended the slowest start to a season in his career with a victory in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.
“You just have a tough season and if things aren’t going well and it seems like the breaks aren’t going you way and then the law of averages say things are going to kind of work out and we get our performance better and today’s the day where it all matched up,” said Hamlin, who started the day 22nd in points.
In a race that featured four sets of green-flag pit stops and a whole lot of tire strategy, Hamlin closed a huge gap between Byron and teammate Martin Truex Jr., passing Truex on the outside and Byron shortly thereafter. He then held off a challenge from Kevin Harvick, a three-time winner at Richmond.
“Yeah, just great strategy there. Just drove as hard as I could,” Hamlin said after climbing from his car. “There was no doubt in my mind, maybe just a little, but they got this car right there towards the end. Wow, unbelievable.”
Hamlin’s 47th career victory was his first at his hometown track since 2016, the first for Toyota in the Next Gen car and gave NASCAR seven different winners in seven Cup Series races.
Harvick was second, followed by Byron, Truex and Kyle Larson.
“Had a shot there at the end,” Harvick said. “I wanted to be close enough with the white to just take a swipe at him. Yeah, the lapped cars there kind of got in the way and I lost a little bit of ground.”
Hamlin got himself into contention during the second stage when he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell opted to stay on the track while most of the rest of the field pitted for tires. The move initially gave the risk-takers a sizable lead, but one that began evaporating quickly.
Hamlin made it pay off in the final stage, going from 15th to seventh over just a few laps after a restart using the extra set of tires he had over the field.
Byron and Truex tried to make a similar strategy work at the end, trying to race almost 90 laps on the same tires while Hamlin and Harvick and most others pitted with just under 50 laps to go. They almost made it work.
“At the end I think we just tried to gamble … on beating the 24. He ended up trying to do our strategy, which we both screwed up,” Truex said. He was seeking his fourth victory in the last six races at the .75-mile, D-shaped oval, but instead Hamlin gave the current JGR stable 13 wins here.
Byron, meantime, declined to pit from the big lead he held when most of the field headed in under green with just over 50 laps to go. Truex did too, but eventually Hamlin passed them both for his first top 10 finish of the season. He also snapped a string of 12 consecutive race winners under 30.
“I thought there at the end they told me I was just racing (Truex),” Byron said of his team. “I’m like, ‘OK. I got him,’ but then (Harvick) and (Hamlin) were on a totally different planet. … There wasn’t anything I could do about them.”
Kyle Busch, the fourth JGR team member, was black-flagged with about 50 laps to go when NASCAR noticed a piece of tape on his grille. At the time, his three teammates were running in the top 10 and he was closing in on joining them. He finished ninth.
Ryan Blaney earned his third straight pole and led the entire 70-lap first stage and the first 128 laps in all, but continued his struggles at Richmond.
“I wanted to run better, but I can’t complain about it too much,” Blaney said. “We just have to find a little bit more speed, but it was nice that we kind of put together some decent notes and have an OK run at Richmond.”
All three of NASCAR’s top series will be in Virginia again next weekend with a Truck-Xfinity-Cup series tripleheader scheduled at Martinsville Speedway.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports