XFINITY Breakdown: Late Opportunity Leads Hamlin to Victory

Just when it looked like a pit road penalty had cost Denny Hamlin his opportunity to win Saturday’s XFINITY Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a late pit stop enabled him to have another chance.  After getting four new tires in the pits, Hamlin lined up sixth for an overtime restart.  The fresh rubber carried him to the lead on the final lap, passing Joey Logano and holding off Kyle Larson to claim his 15th career NXS win in the Hisense 300.

“It was a second opportunity, obviously,” Hamlin said in victory lane.  “I was hoping for that caution there at the end, and we got it.  We were able to get four tires on this Hisense Camry and it took off.”

Despite having one of the best cars in the race, Hamlin found himself well behind the race leaders in the closing laps.  Hamlin’s No. 18 team was penalized for an uncontrolled tire following a yellow flag pit stop at lap 160, sending Hamlin to the back of the field.  Following the restart, the race appeared to be setting up as a rematch from last weekend’s All-Star race between Logano and Larson.  Logano took the lead away from Larson and held the top spot until lap 195, when the No. 42 slipped past the No. 22.  By that time, Hamlin had climbed back to third, but was running out of time to catch the top two.

With two laps to go, Erik Jones blew a tire and crashed in turn 4, setting up an overtime scenario.  Larson and Logano elected to stay out, while everyone behind them on the lead lap pitted.  Neither was able to hold off the drivers with fresh tires.  Larson did get to Hamlin’s back bumper on the final lap and tried to swing past the No. 18 on the high side, but wound up scraping the wall and fading to sixth.

“I didn’t get the great takeoff (on the last restart),” Larson said after the race.  “I was surprised at how much grip I had, actually, but it’s pretty hard to beat four (fresh) tires when you run almost forty laps on your tires.  Hated that we didn’t win, but proud of everybody on this team for getting the ENEOS Chevy a lot better than we were in practice.  Disappointed, but used to it by now.”

Logano’s third place effort and 58 laps led was the best performance for Team Penske’s XFINITY program on the intermediate tracks in 2016.

“We had a car that was capable of winning if circumstances went right,” Logano said.  “It was just really hard to hold off those four tires.”

“It got really exciting there at the end,” Logano added.  “I got passed on the top to Denny, and then Kyle just kept ripping up top, and had a big run into the corner, so it was fun to watch that.”

The first 120 laps of the race were slowed by six caution flags.  A lack of long green flag runs and frequent opportunities to pit often shuffled the front of the field during the first half of the race.  However, Hamlin, Larson, and Logano were all mainstays at the front of the pack, combining to lead 180 laps of what turned out to be a 206 lap contest.

Hamlin’s teammate Daniel Suarez retook the points lead on a day that had the potential for disaster.  On lap 25, while running in the top five, both Suarez and Jones went sliding through turn 4 after hitting oil dropped by another car.  Suarez spun backwards into the outside wall and collected Elliott Sadler.  All three drivers stayed in the race, but Suarez rebounded the best of them, getting the free pass on the race’s third caution at lap 45 and fighting back to finish 12th.  He now leads Sadler by 14 points.

The Good

Truck Series regular Cole Custer posted another impressive finish in his second XFINITY start.  He lost a lot of track position following a second pit stop during the race’s first caution after making contact with Ryan Blaney on pit road.  Custer came back to spend much of the race in the top ten.  He survived the chaotic final restart and finished fourth.  That is the ninth consecutive top ten for JR Motorsports’ No. 88 car.

The Bad

Consistency continues to elude Darrell Wallace Jr.  After a career-best second place result at Dover, “Bubba” was on track for another good finish before scraping the wall on lap 78.  The ensuing green flag pit stop for repairs cost Wallace multiple laps and relegated him to 27th place.

The Ugly

After the lap 25 crash, things went from bad to worse for both Sadler and Jones.  Sadler had a huge hole punched in the nose of his car, and his crew made no fewer than 16 pit stops throughout the afternoon to address the damage.  Although he stayed on the lead lap initially, Sadler could not squeeze enough speed out of his wounded car to keep up with the leaders.  He would finish six laps down in 28th.

Meanwhile, Jones sustained serious right rear damage to his No. 20 car.  He lost multiple laps in the pits getting repairs.  As the race wore on, Jones made good speed and found himself in the free pass position more than once, but was unable to return to the lead lap.  The blown tire and crash on lap 199 ended his day and left him 31st.

Underdog Performance(s) of the Race

Jeb Burton rebounded from a spin in qualifying before the race, running in the top ten before finishing 11th.  Ross Chastain also provided some excitement by leading a lap after restarting in the top five via pit strategy.  His 17th place finish leaves him 22 points outside the Chase cutoff.

Double Duty Interlopers

 Lost in the excitement of the final laps was Austin Dillon’s second place finish.  The 2013 series champion has posted a top ten finish in all nine of his starts this season.

Ryan Blaney made his second appearance in the XFINITY Series this season.  Things were going well for Blaney until he slowed on the backstretch with five laps to go, apparently having cut a tire.  He would finish 16th.

The other two Sprint Cup regulars brought up the rear of the field, with Josh Wise in 39th and Matt Dibenedetto in 40th.

Quotable

“Now I know why Kyle (Busch) wins all the time; this thing’s easy!” –Denny Hamlin on the JGR XFINITY cars

“I thought that (restart) was kind of supposed to be like what the All-Star race was supposed to be, with old tires, and new tires, and all that.” –Joey Logano on the final restart

The Final Word

Saturday’s race felt both atypical and typical of an XFINITY race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  It felt atypical because of the short green flag runs that frequently bunched up the field and allowed some teams to make relatively low-risk gambles on pit strategy.  On the lap 59 restart, for instance, all three of Johnny Davis’ cars were in the top four.  No matter how they might have gotten there, it was a nice change of pace to see those drivers up front, especially with Chastain in the lead.

What was all too typical was that the Sprint Cup regulars were once again unbeatable.  Charlotte has a long history of Cup driver winners in the XFINITY Series, and it did not help that three of the strongest XFINITY regulars crashed early in the race.  There are better opportunities ahead for NXS drivers to secure a win, but the Chase is going to feel a lot closer with Memorial Day Weekend in the rearview.

Up Next

The XFINITY Series will make its inaugural trip to Pocono Raceway on Saturday, June 4th for the Pocono Green 250.  Race coverage begins at 1:00 PM Eastern on FOX.

 

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.

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