Hamlin led the final 39 laps to secure not only his first win at Las Vegas but advancement to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs’ Round of 8.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) September 27, 2021
With the wild cards of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval looming, Denny Hamlin found stability and fortune in Las Vegas, of all places.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led 137 of the 267 laps of the NASCAR Cup Series’ South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday night, earning his first career win in 20 starts in Sin City. The No. 11 team now earns automatic advancement to the third round of the Cup Series playoffs, which will slice the field from 12 to eight drivers en route to the four-car final at Phoenix.
Vegas yielded Hamlin’s second win of the season and the 46th of his career, tying him for 14th-most all-time with NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker. His first at Darlington, earned three weeks prior, allowed him to advance to the ongoing Round of 12. Hamlin is seeking an elusive Cup Series title to round off an accomplished NASCAR resume.
Hamlin held off a late challenge from defending series champion Chase Elliott to win the race by a 0.442-second margin. His JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth while another playoff driver, Ryan Blaney, rounded out the top five.
Hamlin It Up
His lack of a Cup Series championship aside, Hamlin has hoisted nearly every kind of trophy there is to raise in a career dating back to 2004.
Las Vegas, however, often presented a challenge for Hamlin. The renowned driver was a bit of a bore in The Entertainment Capital of the World, earning nine top-ten finishes in 19 prior starts entering Sunday night’s event.
Hamlin made it clear that Sunday night would be a different story right from the get-go: he took the lead from Blaney eight laps in and held for the next 37 circuits. He soon had to deal with the titans of Hendrick Motorsports, namely Elliott and Kyle Larson. The latter won the first of two 81-lap stages, but differing pit strategies allowed Hamlin to take advantage in the latter.
A strong pit top allowed Hamlin to retain the lead after stage two, first holding off a challenge from eliminated playoff driver Tyler Reddick before the last cycle of green flag pit stops. Hamlin emerged with a healthy lead before lapped traffic let Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet close in. It wasn’t enough as Hamlin took home his first win in Nevada.
“It’s another track we can cross off the list. There was a point here where I never thought I would even sniff a victory,” Hamlin said of winning in Las Vegas. ”
“The team has found a setup that has worked with my driving style,” Hamlin said afterward. “I know that me and (crew chief Chris Gabehart) really work hard on trying to shore up any deficiencies that we have or I have as a driver go to work on it, the team goes to work on what they need to give me to go fast. I try to give them the best information that I can. They take that information, they put their brains together and they come up with something that works.”
Hamlin held the regular season points lead for a majority of the year but lost out to Larson thanks to a lack of wins. With two triumphs in the last four events, some might believe that Hamlin may have reclaimed the title of the favorite.
But Hamlin was in no mood to play games of hypotheticals and predictions. As someone who has prided himself solely on results…having worked amongst the championship four in each of the last three seasons…Hamlin is focused only on reality.
“I don’t care. Nothing matters. You have to play the game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s the favorite. You have to play.”
Trouble for #NASCARPlayoffs driver William Byron!
The No. 24 car pits with a flat tire.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 27, 2021
Chase leads Hendrick’s Chase
Hendrick Motorsports vehicles went a roller-coaster evening rife with emotions and wagers that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the many nearby casinos. Larson’s decision to stay out toward the end of the second stage ended his prospects of victory, though he was able to race back to 10th.
Fellow HMS drivers William Byron and Alex Bowman weren’t so lucky. Byron started from the rear of the field after his No. 24 Chevrolet failed inspection twice. He raced his way toward the front of the field and even took the lead from Larson at lap 92. Alas, he was forced to make two pit stops over the final 50 laps due to a flat tire while running fifth with 42 laps to go. Bowman’s No. 48 likewise had to make a late pit stop due to a punctured tire, doing so 13 laps before Byron.
Byron finished 18th and sits four points behind Brad Keselowski for the final advancing spot. Bowman came home 22nd and is 13 points behind the cutoff.
Elliott, on the other hand, managed to finish second and sliced into a healthy Hamlin need by successfully navigating through lapped cars. Unlike Larson, Elliott was able to get around the leader Hamlin to remain on the lead lap at the end of the second stage. The defending series champion believed that made the difference in ending the day on a high note.
“Circumstances kind of went our way. We were able to get back on the lead lap when that cycle stopped. We were there in the middle with those guys making it on fuel,” Elliott said. “We were on the fortunate end because we got back on the lead lap, didn’t have to wave or get the Lucky Dog.”
8er’s gonna 8
Hamlin’s biggest competition in the early portions of the final stage was Reddick, who missed out on an invitation to the Round of 12 by two points at Bristol last weekend. The No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet hounded Hamlin for the first half of the final 107-lap segment before he lost track position in lapped traffic. Delaying his final green flag pit stop came back to haunt Reddick in the end, as he faded from contention shortly after. He was nonetheless the best finisher amongst the non-playoff contenders and one of two in the top ten (the other being Kurt Busch in 8th).
“I think at worst we were a third-place car and should have been competing for the win at the end,” Reddick said, per Chris Estrada of NBC Sports. “There weren’t a ton of cautions during the race and unfortunately waiting just a couple of laps from when (Denny Hamlin) pitted from the lead cost us valuable track position. A sixth-place finish is still a great night for our Richard Childress Racing team and we will now turn our focus to Talladega.”
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 27, 2021
Gase sent to hospital after hard wreck
The only yellow flag for an on-track incident came at lap 93, when Joey Gase’s No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet completely lost a left rear tire. Gase endured a heavy impact with the wall in Turn 2, ending his night early. He was transferred to a local hospital and has since been evaluated and released. Gase will undergo further tests in Charlotte. Sunday marked his 11th race in an RWR vehicle this season.
Unpredictability reigns over the next two playoff races. Before the Round of 12 wraps at Charlotte’s part-oval, part-road course, 188 laps lie ahead at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Nothing more needs to be said about Talladega’s propensity for huge wrecks and tightly packed racing, traits that have made it the perfect site for the halfway mark of the playoffs.
Only Hamlin will venture to Alabama with a sense of safety and security: not only did his win at Las Vegas reserve his spot into the semifinals but he’s the defending winner of Talladega’s fall event.
“From my standpoint, it’s a free pass to go there and try to lead every lap, win the race,” Hamlin said of his strategy for Talladega and Charlotte. “I’m still professional. I still want to go out there and win the next two weeks. There is no reason for us to take any weeks off. We don’t take any weeks off. We were battling for the regular-season championship for the last 10 weeks of the regular season. We’ve been in Playoff mode for quite a while now. I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the what-ifs of what can happen that can take you out.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags