Denny Hamlin entered the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway 20 points away from making the Championship 4. Conventional wisdom was he needed a win in Phoenix to advance to Homestead.
Hamlin left nothing to chance.
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota outright dominated Sunday (Nov. 10), taking the lead during the final stage and never looking back. Building a lead of over 10 seconds, he survived a final restart after a late caution flag to win and earn a spot in the 2019 title chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He did it in such a fashion the outcome was never in doubt. Even two fresh tires were more than enough, Hamlin easing away from the field when the race went green with only three laps remaining. He led 143 of the 312 circuits and was cruising during much of the final stage after getting out front in clean air.
“One of the best cars in my career, I can tell you that,” Hamlin said. “I pushed for all I had. Once we got the big lead, I just kind of sat there. And I got to thinking about, well, if the caution does come out, I want to lap as many as I can.”
And lap the field Hamlin did. Only eight cars were left on the same lap before the race’s final caution in one of the year’s most impressive performances.
Now, Hamlin earns a shot at a title for the first time since the 2014 season. He’s part of a trio of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers who qualified for this year’s Championship 4: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will join him.
“Proud of this FedEx Racing team,” Hamlin continued. “Proud of Toyota for locking up the manufacturer’s championship this week.
“[Making Homestead] doesn’t guarantee a championship. But it’s a chance. You live to fight another day and that’s all you can ask for.”
Hamlin’s win was rival Joey Logano’s loss. The reigning MENCS champion won stage two and looked to be in perfect position to advance. But after losing track position on the stage three restart, Logano dropped like a rock with what turned out to be he “tightest car he’s ever driven.” At one point, he went a lap down and watched helplessly while Hamlin grabbed a bid that once belonged to him.
“No clue,” Logano said when asked what happened. “What they told me is an air pressure adjustment made it go from a winning car to not on the lead lap. I don’t understand it, it doesn’t make any sense.
“It is what it is. It wasn’t our year to make it, I guess. We’ll fight for fifth in points this year. It stinks, it hurts a little bit, but we’ll move on. We’ll go down there and prepare the same way we were going to and win the race.”
Busch was forced to settle for second, some extra cushion for Hamlin after passing Ryan Blaney. Blaney took two tires on his final stop, gaining track position but could only hold on to third place. It was one last gasp for both wheelmen to take the win when John Hunter Nemechek hit the wall to bring out the final caution.
“Just didn’t quite have enough,” Busch said. “I knew the No. 11 was the best car in practice. The guys did a great job, it’s cool to have an opportunity to go race for a championship. Just keep coming up short. Just weren’t good enough. Next week, we have to make sure that we are.”
Kyle Larson finished the race in fourth place, like Blaney falling short in his bid to advance to the Championship 4. Kevin Harvick ran fifth and will fight the trio of JGR drivers next week for a title.
The race was dominated by the eight remaining playoff contenders, who spent much of the race running inside the top 10. But Chase Elliott blew a tire on lap 166 and slammed the wall, ending his chances of advancing and giving Hamlin an opportunity to earn the lead on the ensuing restart.
That turned out to be all she wrote on a day where passing proved difficult at Phoenix. There were just eight lead changes, tied for the fewest in this race since 1990 and only five cautions to break up the action.