Darlington Raceway has always been unique. From its humble beginnings, way back in 1950, it had a unique length (1.366 miles) and egg-like shape all its own. Now, on a schedule peppered with wide tracks that allow full throttle cornering, its narrow surface and unforgiving walls are about as different as anything you’ll see in a Cup Series race.
All that is just fine with Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin picked up his first win of 2021 Sunday night (Sept. 5), holding off a hard-charging Kyle Larson. It was the fourth Darlington triumph for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver but might be the most important one. After all, his three previous victories here came after he’d already won elsewhere earlier in the year.
As good as Hamlin has run, it seemed ludicrous that he could go winless in 2021. Yet with every passing week, the notion got more and more plausible despite him leading the point standings much of the season. Suddenly, Hamlin is back on the championship radar screen, once again looking like a contender. It’s not like much has really changed, except that goose egg in the win column is gone.
Here are a few more notable numbers from Sunday night’s Southern 500.
Sunday’s race at Darlington was the 27th event of the 2021 Cup Series season, but it actually isn’t the latest point that Hamlin has picked up his first win. He narrowly avoided going winless in 2013, claiming the victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final race of the year. Interestingly enough, that was the last time a driver won the season finale but not the championship.
Hamlin has been ultra consistent throughout his career, scoring at least one win in nearly every year of full-time Cup Series participation. I say nearly because he ran out of time in 2018. The lone winless season of his Cup tenure wasn’t a complete failure, as Hamlin did run well, finishing in the top five 10 times. Fortunately for the No. 11 team, 2021 winding up that way is no longer a possibility.
Seven of the top eight finishers at Darlington were playoff contenders, but the night was far from kind to the other nine. None of that group finished higher than 16th and four of them didn’t finish at all. Kyle Busch, William Byron, Michael McDowell and defending champion Chase Elliott all watched the finish from the infield after crashes ended the night for each of them.
By finishing second, Larson picked up his 11th top-two result of the year. That’s an astonishing 40% of his starts in 2021, including a runner-up result in both Darlington races.
Ross Chastain landed his third top five of the year, following Hamlin and Larson to the finish line. It was his first top five with McDonald’s as the primary sponsor and got the fast food giant close to ending that 955-race winless streak. The last time a car won with McDonald’s on the hood was Jimmy Spencer at Talladega Superspeedway in July 1994. That was the closest the golden arches have been to winning since Larson ran second at Chicagoland Speedway in 2019.
In the last eight races, Byron has finished 20th or worse six times, including 34th on Sunday. It’s a rapid and likely unwanted swing in momentum for the No. 24 team, which had only three showings outside of the top 20 in the first 19 events of the year.
Corey LaJoie didn’t earn his best career finish at Darlington, but he put on what may have been the most impressive race of his Cup Series tenure. LaJoie spent the majority of the race hanging around the latter half of the top 10 before slipping to 15th at the checkered flag. Still, LaJoie has to be pleased with a competitive evening in the Spire Motorsports entry on a track like the 1.366-mile Lady in Black.
Chris Buescher also had a solid Southern 500 outing, ending up ninth at the finish. It was the first top 10 for Buescher since the Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day weekend, continuing a bit of an upswing for the whole Roush Fenway Racing team. Ryan Newman followed up his third-place finish last week at Daytona International Speedway with a 14th in Darlington. Both drivers have run inside the top 20 multiple times over the past few weeks and appear to be getting more competitive as the weeks go by.
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