Wow. What a race.
Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway featured 37 lead changes, the most in any 400-mile event at a 1.5-mile track in NASCAR Cup Series history, and it was the final one that paved the way for Denny Hamlin's first NASCAR Cup Series victory of 2023.
Hamlin, who led the race on eight different occasions for a total of 34 laps, had been stalking Hendrick Motorsports' Kyle Larson for the lead over the final run of the race.
The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing FedEx Toyota Camry cut Larson's lead from over a second, to within car lengths with a handful of laps remaining in the race. But try as he might, it looked like Larson had just enough speed, and enough of an aerodynamic advantage by being out front, to hold on for the win.
Then, on the final lap of the 267-lap contest, Hamlin got alongside Larson off of Turn 2. Larson washed up the track, and potentially tapped the outside wall off of Turn 2, which caused Larson to cut his car to the left. Only problem? Hamlin's nose was there, and the two made contact.
The contact sent Larson left, and as Larson attempted to gather his car up, it darted right into the outside wall, and Hamlin snuck past for the lead and the race win.
Here is a video of the finish of Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400
As Hamlin climbed from his No. 11 machine on the frontstretch following the race, Hamlin was showered with boos from the crowd.
"Yeah, got position on him there, was trying to side-draft him but clipped his left rear," Hamlin said of the last-lap incident. "Glad he was able to at least finish. Proud of my FedEx team, though. 400 wins now for Joe Gibbs Racing, it's such a great accomplishment for them."
This latest win marks the 49th of Hamlin's illustrious NASCAR Cup Series career, a career that has been worth enough of NASCAR naming Hamlin to its 75 Greatest Drivers list.
While Larson was disappointed in missing out on the victory, he admitted that Hamlin had the better car on the run to the checkered flag. Larson said Hamlin's side-drafting led to him slipping and sliding even more than his already loose car was forcing him to do in the closing laps.
"I was really loose. I was trying to do what I could to manage it," Larson explained. "I was really loose at that end. He was just a little better than me at the end. I haven't seen a replay either, but obviously, he was side-drafting really aggressively like you would [expect]. But he was like touching me, it felt like, and it just had me kind of out of control."
Despite crashing into the outside wall on the backstretch on the final lap of the race, Larson was able to salvage a runner-up finish on the day.
William Byron, Larson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, had an incredible rally from two laps down at one point in the race to finish the race in third.
Bubba Wallace, who won at Kansas Speedway last fall, ended the day with a solid fourth-place finish in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota and Ross Chastain rounded out the top-five finishers in his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet.
On his path to the fifth-place finish, Chastain had an on-track run-in with Noah Gragson late in the race, which foiled what looked to be one of Gragson's best runs of his rookie season.
The contact with Chastain sent Gragson into the wall, and a couple of laps later a tire shredded on Gragson's car. As a result, Gragson would finish the day 29th, five laps off the pace.
Unhappy with what transpired on the track, Gragson sought out Chastain on pit road following the race. After a heated conversation, which led to Gragson grabbing onto Chastain's firesuit, Chastain swung at Gragson. After the first punch landed, NASCAR officials broke up the altercation.
Despite the altercation with Gragson, Chastain now holds a 31-point lead over Christopher Bell for the NASCAR Cup Series regular season championship.
Sunday's race had it all. Thrilling action on the track. The event had comers and goers. It featured plenty of passing throughout the pack, including a record-total of passes for the lead, and in the end, fans were treated to an iconic finish and some fireworks on pit road.
I don't know what you expected as far as the on-track product at Kansas Speedway, but what transpired in Sunday's race should have easily exceeded any expectations.
The NASCAR Cup Series will now head to Darlington Raceway next weekend for Throwback Weekend. The Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway is set for Sunday, May 14th. Television coverage for that event will be provided by FS1 at 3:00 PM ET.
Photo Credit: Ben Earp, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing