MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin had controlled much of Sunday’s Xfinity 500, and with it a good chunk of his fate in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. A final troublesome trio of pit stops and a Ross Chastain impression of a china-shop bull proved to be his undoing.
Hamlin’s hopes for a fourth consecutive Championship 4 appearance and a shot at a still-elusive Cup Series title ended dramatically Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, long a favorite haunt of the Virginia native. Hamlin led a race-best 203 laps but went from above the elimination line to below it on the final trip around the historic track as Chastain rode the wall in desperation and nosed him out at the checkered flag, nabbing fifth place and dropping Hamlin to sixth — four points shy of advancing.
The two drivers developed a history this year with on-track run-ins, but this was one for the books.
“It was well-executed, but certainly … I don’t know,” Hamlin said when asked if Chastain’s move was somehow out of bounds. “I didn’t think of it that way, but this is the rules we play, you know. You’ve gotta race inside these walls, and he found a way to do it better than us on the last lap.”
Hamlin had a quantifiable chance to give his star-crossed season a crowning moment in next Sunday’s finale at Phoenix Raceway, based on the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota’s early strength. He took the lead for the first time on the 120th of 500 laps, and held it to earn max points with wins at the end of the first two stages.
When eventual winner Christopher Bell and fellow playoff driver Chase Briscoe took turns leading late in their must-win bids for an automatic title-race berth, it appeared that Hamlin’s 20-point tally from the stages would be buffer enough to help him advance. But Hamlin lost ground on his final three pit-road visits, including a 14.5-second final stop that cost him five spots in the exchange and offset the earlier gains.
“I absolutely hate the result, but I loved our performance,” Hamlin said. “We performed at a top-notch championship level, except when we went on pit road and lost control of the lead and then lost a few more spots — I think 10 spots in last three stops. You just, you can’t do that in this sport certainly. I mean, you got to have all facets buttoned up and ready to go, and we just … the team gave me a great car. I just could not thank them enough for giving me a race-winning car, but you know, you’ve got to have all the pieces of the puzzle together, and the one thing that really hurt us this year and kept us from having five, six wins in the regular season is the same thing that bit us today. That’s our fault.”
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Joe Gibbs Racing had swapped pit crews within its four-team organization after the postseason’s opening round. Once Kyle Busch was eliminated from playoff contention in the Round of 16 finale at Bristol, JGR officials switched the No. 18 team’s over-the-wall personnel to Hamlin’s No. 11.
Chris Gabehart, the No. 11 Camry’s crew chief, was wistful as he echoed Hamlin’s remarks, lamenting the pit-stop sluggishness that hampered the overall performance.
“Life has a way of being ironically appropriate a lot of times, and the bottom line is, the car was certainly fast enough to dominate the race,” Gabehart told NASCAR.com. “We lost a lot of spots on pit road again that cost us another race, and it proved to be too much for us to overcome on points this year. We should have many, many more wins than we do. There’s a theme as to why we don’t — very clear — and it was summed up last three stops on pit road today.”
Even with the dejection still relatively fresh, Gabehart was magnanimous in applauding Chastain’s last-lap wizardry, toasting a fellow competitor who has been a thorn with his on-track engagement racing against Hamlin at multiple points of the season.
“Then, the move. I mean, look how bad he wants it,” Gabehart said. “I mean, my God, you can’t question how bad that guy wants to be the best. I don’t agree with his tactics. It’s cost us a lot this year, but man, I congratulate him on how bad he wants something. Good for him.”