Hamlin fought off a wild charge from Kyle Larson in Turn 3 and 4 and hung on to win Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway – his first victory of the 2021 season.
The win automatically advances Hamlin to the Round of 12 in the NASCAR playoffs regardless of where he finishes in the next two races at Richmond, Va., and Bristol, Tenn.
Hamlin led the final 69 laps, but it was the last one where he came closest to losing out on the win. As the two entered Turn 3 on the last of 367 laps, Larson sent his No. 5 Chevrolet deep into the corner and into the wall.
Larson still managed to get to Hamlin’s rear bumper exiting Turn 4 but lost momentum as the two raced to the checkered flag, where Hamlin won by .212 seconds.
“Southern 500, it’s a big win. Yeah, I love this race track. It’s by far my favorite race track,” said Hamlin, who now has four Cup wins at the track, including three Southern 500 victories. “It’s just great.
“He (Larson) drove it in past the limit of the cars and the tires. I knew he was coming. I was a little bit conservative on that last lap because I had that four-car-length lead. Yeah, I didn’t think he was going go that deep, but yeah, still a great race.
“It’s been back and forth with me and him most of the year. He’s just been a little bit faster on these types of race tracks, and luckily the caution came when it did and the strategy worked out great for the team, but man, I’m really happy.”
Asked about the significance of the win, Hamlin said, “It was a matter of time. We can’t just keep leading inside 10 laps to go every week and not get a win.
“Yesterday was some unique circumstances but, man, I tell you what, I couldn’t be happier for this win and now to move to the Round of 12.”
Ross Chastain finished third, Martin Truex Jr. rebounded from a late-race speeding penalty to end up fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five.
Completing the top-10 were Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chris Buescher and Austin Dillon.
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro HendrickCars.com
Photo by: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Following the break between Stages 2 and 3, all the lead-lap cars pit with Larson the first off pit road. Ryan Blaney was penalized during his stop for having an uncontrolled tire and had to restart from the rear of the field.
On the restart on Lap 238, Larson was followed by Christopher Bell, Hamlin and Harvick.
Bell was forced to pit under green on Lap 253 with a bad vibration. He had a loose left-rear wheel and rejoined the track in 24th, the second car one lap down.
With 100 laps remaining, Larson maintained a 2.4-second lead over Hamlin as Chastain rain third.
Another round of green-flag pit stops got underway on Lap 270 with Larson among the first to pit.
Once the cycle of stops was completed on Lap 280, Larson moved back into the lead, with a more than 7-second advantage over Chastain.
Harvick was forced to pit under green on Lap 278 for a loose wheel. He returned to the track in 23rd and one lap down.
With 68 laps to go, another round of green-flag stop got underway with Larson again among the first to pit.
On Lap 319, Blaney spun and wrecked in Turn 3 and said over his team radio that “his brake pads exploded again.”
The lead-lap cars all pit with Truex the first off pit road but was penalized for speeding on pit road and had to restart from the rear of the field.
On the restart on Lap 326, Hamlin lined up in the lead followed by Chastain, Larson and Kurt Busch.
Chase Elliott slammed the Turn 1 wall on Lap 327, doing considerable damage to his No. 9 Chevrolet and bringing his race to an early end.
The race returned to green on Lap 332 with Hamlin out front followed by Larson, Chastain, Kurt Busch and Logano.
With five laps remaining, Hamlin appeared to have the race well in hand but Larson launched his No. 5 deep in Turn 3 on the final lap in a desperate attempt to get around Hamlin.
Larson dominated on his way to a 2.347-second win over Bell for the Stage 2 victory.
Chastain was third, Hamlin fourth and Harvick rounded out the top-five.
Following the break between Stages 1 and 2, all the lead-lap cars pit with Hamlin the first off pit road.
On the restart on Lap 123, Hamlin was followed by Larson, Kurt Busch and Blaney.
Larson quickly powered around Hamlin to grab the lead on the restart.
On Lap 125, Dillon got into Kyle Busch off Turn 2, which sent Busch’s No. 18 Toyota slamming into the inside wall and bringing his race to an early end.
A handful of cars elected to pit under the caution but Larson remained on the track and in the lead. On the restart on Lap 130, Larson was followed by Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Blaney.
With 75 laps remaining in the stage, Larson had opened a more than 5-second lead over Kurt Busch as Hamlin ran third and Chastain fourth.
On Lap 157, another round of green-flag pit stops began with teams taking tires and fuel to make it to the end of the stage. Elliott missed pit road on his first try and had to go around and make another attempt.
A caution came out on Lap 163 for debris on the frontstretch before the green-flag pit cycle was completed.
Bell, who had not pit yet, made his stop under caution, while Hamlin made another stop. Larson cycled back into the lead and the race returned to green on Lap 169.
With 40 laps to go in the stage, Larson led Hamlin by 1.8 seconds as Kurt Busch ran third and Bell fourth.
Another round of green-flag stop kicked off on Lap 197 as Larson was among the first to pit.
On Lap 200, William Byron suffered a flat tire and hit the Turn 4 wall hard, doing considerable damage to his No. 24 Chevrolet and ending his race.
The race returned to green on Lap 206 with Larson still out front.
With five laps to go in the stage, Larson’s lead over Hamlin had grown to 4.7 seconds.
Hamlin cruised to the Stage 1 win, with a 2.788-second lead over Larson.
Kurt Busch was third, Blaney fourth and Harvick rounded out the top-five.
Blaney started on the pole and led the first 14 laps. Just as Kurt Busch passed him to take the lead on Lap 15, Alex Bowman hit the wall in Turn 3 to bring out a caution. Byron also got a piece of that incident as Bowman bounced off the wall.
The race resumed on Lap 20 with Kurt Busch out front followed by Blaney, Elliott, Hamlin and Tyler Reddick.
On Lap 26, NASCAR displayed a competition caution to allow teams to check tire wear. Most of the lead-lap cars pit with Harvick the first off pit road. Elliott was forced to pit twice due to tire smoke after his stop.
When the race resumed on Lap 30, Jones led the way followed by Harvick.
On Lap 31, Michael McDowell spun off Turn 2 following contact with Erik Jones and slammed the inside wall hard, bringing an early end to the playoff driver’s race.
“The 43 (Jones) kind of got everybody jammed up. I think he started on the front there without tires, which is a tough spot to be in and I just went three-wide underneath him and just got into the patch with my left sides just a little bit low,” McDowell said. “I got loose enough into the wall.”
The race returned to green on Lap 35 with Harvick out front followed by Kurt Busch and Hamlin.
On Lap 47, Cody Ware and James Davison wrecked in Turn 1 to bring out another caution. The lead-lap cars pit with Hamlin the first off pit road.
The race resumed on Lap 54 with Hamlin out front followed by Harvick, Blaney and Kurt Busch.
With 40 laps remaining in the first stage, Hamlin maintained just under a 1-second lead over Blaney as Kurt Busch ran third.
A round of green-flag pit stops kicked off on Lap 80 with drivers taking new tires and fuel to make it to the end of the stage.
Once the cycle of stops was completed on Lap 84, Hamlin was back out front followed by Larson and Blaney.
With 20 laps to go in the stage, Hamlin had built a 3.9-second lead over Larson as Kurt Busch moved into third. Blaney was fourth and Harvick fifth.
Dillon had to start the race from the rear of the field after multiple failures in pre-race inspection.