NASCAR Cup Series
Denny Hamlin Overcomes Chaos to Win Wild Coca-Cola 600
May 30, 2022
Maybe they were incredulous to the events that had just transpired. Perhaps the drivers who had just finished the Coca-Cola 600 were mad, sad or indifferent.
Most of all, surely, they were just exhausted.
Kyle Larson and Chase Briscoe were poised to decide the longest race of the year amongst each other but neither won. Briscoe cost himself with a de facto slider gone awry with two laps to go. Larson was denied in the subsequent overtime when Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon took him four-wide alongside Ross Chastain.
That crash took out Dillon, Chastain and Joey Logano.
The entire final sequence played out like something from Avengers Endgame with all the heroes and -villains of the NASCAR Cup Series making their final stand. It was the Coca-Cola 600, after all, and the field responded accordingly.
Briscoe had caught Larson from several seconds back over the final green flag run but kept buffering out in the dirty air of the draggy Next Gen car. If he was going to complete the pass after several attempts came up short, he was just going to have to sail it in as deep as possible and hope for the best.
It didn’t produce the best outcome.
"It was so hard because I couldn't run the fence like I wanted to because these cars get so tight behind each other," Briscoe said. "I kind of found something in 3 and 4 to keep me close because I was so much better than him into 1. If I could just get to his left rear, I'd be okay. I drove it in there the same as I had been the whole time, but it just spun out."
So, Larson survived that, only to get taken out when Dillon, Hamlin and Chastain took him four wide with four fresh tires behind him. Larson started at the rear as a result of crashing out of Saturday practice. He suffered several pit road miscues and spun again just short of the halfway break.
Larson even needed an inspirational talk from crew chief Cliff Daniels to keep his spirits up.
"Tires look good to me. Keep rolling. Was that aero?"
"It sucks. Me. The driver. I suck."
"I’ll give you 34 more laps. Lap 200 we’re going to turn it around."
And through it all, Larson completed a not even close to anyone else 197 passes all race long and found himself leading on the final restart … albeit on two less fresher tires than several hounds behind him. He was a sitting duck.
"The 3 (Dillon) was definitely way alongside me and I kind of under-drove the corner; I just didn’t know what to expect getting into (Turn) 3, and I was the leader," Larson said. "You don’t have anybody to judge off. So, I kind of under-drove it, and then the 3 drove in really deep and got almost clear of me and barely caught the front end, and it got us all spinning out"
With four tires, Dillon was shot out of the figurative cannon and he hoped the speed that propelled him to that point would also stick over the bump in Turn 4.
It did not.
"I felt like that’s what I needed to win the race," Dillon said. "I got the position to do it. I just felt like I needed to get clear in 3 and 4; and had that one wiggle. I thought with the four tires, it would stick, and it didn’t and killed us.
"I had to go for it. We needed the win. I just caught in the middle and couldn’t finish the corner. You’re three wide and along for the ride."
That left, remarkably, pole sitting Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch lined up side-by-side.
"I've always said when I get the most nervous is when two of our cars are up there late because both of them want it so bad," Gibbs said after the race. "You could tell Kyle was after it, Denny was. That's your greatest fear. The restart before that the two lead cars took each other out. That's what you're so afraid of."
And after the days both Hamlin and Busch suffered through to get here, it would be a shame to not finish off the comeback. In a race of attrition and survival, here they were.
Hamlin won the figurative drag race, and Busch was just in disbelief to even be in that position in the first place.
"Not a very good performance overall, and struggled really bad all night long," Busch said. Gave everything we had there. It was remarkable to be in position to race for the win, but we didn't run there."
How did he overcome the apparent tire failure, subpar execution and half spin?
"Everyone in front of me crashed, didn't you see it," Busch said with a rare smile after a runner-up. Not even runner-up Rowdy could be mad after that wackiness.
Somewhere between all the spins, crashes and chaos, there was another Tyler Reddick heartbreak -- this time a left rear tire issue that eliminated him from the battle for the lead alongside Larson, Briscoe and Chastain.
Even through the latest chapter of misfortune, and a still winless tab in the Cup Series column, the two-time Xfinity Series champion was laughing and smiling on pit road. He executed his own version of the pass in the grass on two cars on the final lap to rebound to a sixth-place finish.
Jovial and lighthearted, but equally intent on the goal at hand moving forward, too.
"I know there are folks tired of hearing about us coming just short just like our guys are too," Reddick said. "I'm ready to get the job done for all of them."
But there was this bit of fun:
"YEAAAH, PASS IN THE GRASS BABY."
The whole race was various shades of fun, which is something Briscoe held onto after the night was done, too.
"That is the most fun I ever had here, sliding around the track and throwing sliders on a wide race track," Briscoe said. "It was a lot of fun."
The track drainage aided flip of Chris Buescher will put a slight blemish on what seemed like a win of a night for the Next Gen car and its racing product after a lackluster All-Star Race last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
"Anytime you have a green-white-checkered, you're going to have some pretty exciting moments," Hamlin said. "Everyone is going to drive really hard because this is a marquee event."
Busch and Kevin Harvick, meanwhile, aren’t here to give out grades for the racing.
"It’s great," Busch said with his best Marshawn Lynch. "Betcha the fans love it."
"I’m going to leave that up for everyone else to decide," he said. "I’m just going to do my job and get to the end of the race."
The winner will make up his mind after watching a replay early this coming week.
"Listen, there's some work, and it's going to evolve," Hamlin said. "Every time we change cars, we have a new generation, it takes like a significant amount of time to get it right. This was a major overhaul of a car. Other than it had a steering wheel and four tires, there wasn't much that was similar to the previous generation car. That car had been honed-in for a long time. This one still has some work to do. We got to do some testing to try to fix it in some areas.
"But in the meantime, we're still having some pretty good racing on nights like tonight, I think. From where I was at, if you were good, you could make up positions. If you weren't, you lost some. When I was bad, I fell back. When I was good, I was able to charge forward. That was encouraging.
"Kind of jury is still out on trying to figure out exactly how we can make this good at every track we go to."
With that said – if Charlotte had raced like this over the past decade, the Roval would have never been necessary in the first place.
Talk about ‘One Hot Night.’