Even without a win during the regular season, Hamlin had remained in the hunt to head the standings into the Playoffs until the last of the 26 races at Daytona.
With five wins so far this season, Hendrick Motorsport’s Kyle Larson eventually claimed the regular season ‘title’ and the critical 15 playoff points that came with it to put Hamlin in a challenging position entering the playoffs.
But one race – and one win – later, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s title hopes have been greatly rejuvenated.
Not only did Hamlin triumph in Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington, but he did so while going toe-to-toe with Larson on speed and deftly held off his daring final-lap dramatics to secure the victory.
In addition, Hamlin now gets a free pass to the second round of the playoffs and can throw caution to the wind – so to speak – while trying to rack up more wins (and playoff points) over the next two weeks at Richmond and Bristol.
“We had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races, and we only really had the fastest car twice and we understood that,” said Hamlin, who in his 16th full season at Cup level is still yet to win his first title.
“But [Larson] just went on a tear there, and for us, it certainly is significant. I’m not going to downplay the significance of it. It’s not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.
“We didn’t have the playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these playoffs. There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.”
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry Offerpad celebrates
Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images
Hamlin has three career wins at Richmond and finished second in the spring race after leading 207 of the 400 laps. He’s also got a pair of wins at Bristol, including a victory from pole in the night race two years ago.
For at least one week at least, Hamlin vaults to the top of the 16-driver playoff standings and suddenly his championship prospects look much more promising.
“We’ve been just second, third place car most of the year – there are about 33 teams that would love to have that,” Hamlin said.
“We’ve been very, very close. And obviously [Larson] has been kind of the standout from the field, and we’ve just kind of been the next best and then on average. We just needed a race like this.”
Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, also appreciates the benefits Hamlin’s timely win has provided, allowing them to take in the next races “pressure free”.
“I’m not going to lie about that. Those are going to be two races that I’m really going to enjoy,” he said.
Going forward, however, Hamlin is taking nothing for granted.
Last season – where Hamlin and Kevin Harvick won the most races during the year and neither won the title – provides a stark reminder anything can happen in the playoffs.
“You just never know what can happen, that’s why they race these races,” Hamlin said.
“I lean on my experience and when I don’t always have the very fastest car, we’ve got a good crew chief and good team to figure out how else can we win because it ain’t always about speed.
“You just never know because it’s a three-race season (each round), and what you did for the first 30-something (races), when you get down to the end, just doesn’t matter.”