The Toyota Owners 400 was a barnburner but not in the traditional sense with all the variables falling into place just after halfway but it took the rest of the race to materialize and converge towards the final five laps.
Denny Hamlin, Chris Gabehart and the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team emerged victorious, but it took a complete team effort. It also requires a reverse deconstruction of the race to understand what happened by Lap 400.
Hamlin spent much of the first half outside of the top-10. They finished the first stage in 11th and that’s when Gabehart made the decision to be one of just five teams to split the second stage with only one pit stop instead of two:
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 (Christopher Bell)
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 (Denny Hamlin)
Richard Childress Racing No. 3 (Austin Dillon)
Petty GMS No. 43 (Erik Jones)
Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 (Aric Almirola)
There were track position reasons behind the decision but it really came down to saving a set of tires should they have a chance to use them. They took that option on Lap 248, pitting alongside William Byron, Rudy Fugle and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 team, who all began charging towards the front.
That distinction became immediately important because the caution came out five laps later.
"Which is not what we wanted," Hamlin said.
It’s not what he and Gabehart wanted because they would have taken the lead within five or so more laps on an afternoon where track position mattered a great deal, but the caution negated that possibility.
Anyway, Fugle kept the No. 24 out on older tires but Gabehart chose to pit with the previous leaders, becoming equal on tires with them. Gabehart could have kept Hamlin out, and basically would have likely found themselves on the same strategy Fugle and Byron finished the race on.
"It was a tough decision because we hadn’t made up all the track position I wanted to make up," Gabehart said. "But you can’t get greedy. At that point we had at least made up enough that now we were then in contention. So the idea was 'come down pit road, have a good pit stop and let him race it out from there.' That’s what we did.
"Obviously, some guys stayed out. It ended up working out really well for them, too. I didn’t feel like that was going to be the winning play for our car, our team. I brought us down pit road and the rest was history."
History, of course, is that the No. 24 team tried to make it on one more stop with a race that stayed green the rest of the way. Byron simply didn't have enough speed and grip left in the tires.
"I thought we probably did the best job we could," Byron said. "It didn’t quite work out. I thought there at the end they told me I was just racing the 19. I’m like okay, I got him, but then the 4 and the 11 were on a totally different planet."
Hamlin came back from a lap down on two more stops (310, 354) and used his tires to carve through the field.
"I mean, it was a team win," Hamlin said. "(Gabehart) had such a huge role, the pit crew has such a huge role, I had a huge role, the people in the shop had such a huge role. This might have been one of the biggest. Everyone had a hand in this victory. That’s super satisfying."
Fugle had conviction that his driver had a better chance of winning by getting out front and setting a consistent pace more than having to use up his front tires trying to literally pass the entire field. That’s what Hamlin and Kevin Harvick would need to do.
"Our car had good pace, and we could manage it up front, but we weren't really good at passing today," Fugle said of the No. 24 strategy. "We didn't have that kind of car. So anyway, we pit with 90 to go and you're just working what the pace is going to be for that 90 lap (run) which we haven't done yet, and it's cooling down.
"Like, our pace at 60 laps was way better than it had been all day long, so we thought we were going to be in good shape. But we just got messed up by guys (un-lapping themselves) on better tires and we lost a second a half over 90 laps.
"That's really what cost us the win. All of our data was telling us we were right on the edge of making it work and our chances were better staying out."
Fugle thought it was going to be a battle just between themselves and the No. 19 team -- crew chief James Small and driver Martin Truex Jr. The No. 19 had 13 lap fresher tires than the No. 24. The data just didn’t show Hamlin and Harvick cutting though the field as quickly as they did.
Fugle started to sweat with 20 to go when Byron got caught in side-by-side traffic, with faster cars a lap down passing to the inside. That's when he also saw the pace the 11 and 4 were setting.
"With 20 to go when we got hung up on the outside for about three laps, four laps in a row and ran three or four tents slower than we were just doing our own thing, that’s when I knew," Fugle said. "That was the second and a half that we needed.
"Really, there were about four or five cars that us within that five-lap window, passed us and hung us off the yellow line."
They finished third … two seconds behind Hamlin and Harvick. It really comes down to that second and a half for Byron.
"There wasn’t anything I could do about them, so it was probably four or five to go and Brandon (Lines, spotter) was coaching me on keeping the tires underneath it and having good exits and entries," Byron said. Especially making those
guys go around me on the top was definitely better. The times that guys would get underneath me was really, really hard to get back connected and get a good lap put together."
Meanwhile, Hamlin and Harvick were engaged in their own battle throughout the final three stints. Rodney Childers short-pitted Harvick twice in the hopes of getting in front of Hamlin, but just couldn’t successfully complete the undercut.
Hamlin also had the extra lap fresher tires by one lap and the track position.
"I mean, I was trying to be the first one to pit each time and get that track position," Childers said. "Coming out behind him, so close and being in his dirty air over and over and over really overheated our front tires, and just got us tighter and tighter in the center and (we) never really could get to 'em."
Fugle had a sound strategy in the sense that it’s easier to capitalize on the track position and ask Byron to run a consistent pace around the bottom.
For this to work out for Hamlin, it was going to require a lot of hard driving and a little bit of luck in traffic, and both elements worked out for the No. 11 team. Think of it in these terms: Hamlin unlapped himself with 35 laps to go and drove all the way back through the field and won the race.
How did he do that?
Well, he gained .061 a lap to Byron on the first green flag stint, .096 a lap on the second, and a staggering .820 a lap on the third -- the difference in tires.
"Once I kind of looked at the gap that I gained from eight to go to six to go, I was like, ‘All right, we’re going to catch him,’ but I was a little bit worried with the lap cars before that," Hamlin said, "Trying to stay on lead lap, get a lap back. There were a couple Fords side by side when I had Harvick right behind me.
"Overall, I knew that I was racing the 4 for the most part. It was just a matter of time on the 24."
And even though the winning pass came with four laps to go, the seeds were actually planted with 140 to go.