DARLINGTON, S.C. – Denny Hamlin made a huge mistake Sunday night.
Then the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota made an even bigger comeback to win one of NASCAR’s most prestigious races.
Running down race leader Martin Truex Jr. from 20 seconds back after missing the entrance to pit road on Lap 313 of 367, Hamlin won the Bojangles’ Southern 500 for the second time, finishing off a sweep of the throwback Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series/NASCAR XFINITY Series weekend at Darlington Raceway.
On tires that were 10 laps fresher than Truex’s, Hamlin exited pit road in 14th-place on Lap 315 after missing the entrance the first time, and methodically began to chop into Truex’s lead. With just over two laps left, Hamlin was closing fast, as Truex was fighting to maintain control of his car on worn-out rubber.
RELATED: Hamlin misses pit road, loses lead
Truex grazed the wall on Lap 365, then cut a tire and bounced off the wall again as Hamlin rushed past. Two laps later, Hamlin had his second victory of the season and the 31st of his career.
Hamlin beat JGR teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line by 2.599 seconds as Truex faded to eighth after clinching the regular-season championship by winning the first two stages of the race.
“That’s as hard as I can drive,” said Hamlin, whose Camry sported a paint scheme paying tribute to renowned modified driver Ray Hendrick. “What can I say — it’s the ‘Flying 11.’ It means everything to me. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, this is a throwback to my history – this is for Ray Hendrick, Bugs Hairfield, Wayne Patterson, Eddie Johnson, the short track guys that I grew up watching.
“This was a throwback to them. Back in 1985 and 1989, I was at Southside Speedway in the stands watching them race and learning everything I could from them, and this is a throwback to them and their history.”
Hamlin last won the Bojangles’ Southern 500 in 2010, when he also achieved a two-race sweep. In the last seven runnings of the event, Hamlin has finished in the top six on six occasions.
But, under the circumstances, Sunday night’s win was one to savor.
“This one’s sweeter,” he acknowledged, “going through the adversity we did.”
Hamlin was pushing hard to get to pit road on Lap 313 when he came in too hot and had to steer his car back onto the track to avoid a commitment violation or contact with the barrels at the head of pit road. Hamlin termed it “kind of a rookie move,” but over the closing laps he more than atoned for the mistake.
Truex didn’t have the dominant car in the first two stages, but he won both, despite leading just 34 of the first 200 laps. And when Truex took the green/checkered flag under caution at the end of the second 100-lap stage, he clinched the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular-season championship.
With a 15-playoff-point bonus for that accomplishment, Truex increased his playoff point total to a series-best 52, giving the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota a huge leg up toward advancing through the early rounds of the playoff.
But Truex, the defending winner of the event, was disappointed he couldn’t hold on to the top spot for two more laps.
RELATED: Truex expresses disappointment
“It was definitely a bittersweet night for us, to come up just two laps short there, blow a tire at the end after having no issues with tires all night and having such a good race car,” Truex said. “I don’t know if that last run was the longest one we made all night. I’m not really sure, to be honest. I was kind of out there caught up driving my guts out at the end trying to hang on.
“It’s unfortunate we blew the tire, but really proud of everybody on this team for an amazing season so far, and to lock up the regular-season points is a huge accomplishment for us, for our team. I feel like we’ve come a long way in just a few years together and continue to climb.”
Clint Bowyer suffered an engine failure and fell out of the race after 18 laps, leaving the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team with but one path into the playoffs — a victory next Saturday night at Richmond.
RELATED: Bowyer’s playoff hopes take a hit
“It just blew up,” Bowyer lamented after taking his Ford to the garage. “It’s a pretty inopportune time to have it happen, but it’s never a good time. Doug Yates and all the guys over at his (Roush-Yates Engines) shop do such a good job of bringing us reliable, good horsepower, and it was just my time.
“It was my turn, and there isn’t much you can do about it. Obviously, the way the playoffs look right now, we’re not out of this thing. We’ve still got a good race track coming up for us. We’ll just go there and do the best we can and put all the cards on the table over there.”