Zack Albert | NASCAR Digital Media

Denny Hamlin connects on a night celebrating short-track roots

HAMPTON, Va. — Church was in session on a Thursday night. The Rev. Tom Potter didn’t let the microphone trouble bother him for the pre-race invocation at Langley Speedway. Once he found one that worked, the Motor Racing Outreach veteran belted out, “Lord, can you hear me?!” to a hearty laugh from the crowd.

Divine intervention. Holy ground. Whichever spiritual analogy suits, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown brought a taste of big-time gospel to the grassroots level at the historic .396-mile track, a prelude to Saturday night’s NASCAR racing to the north at Richmond Raceway.

RELATED: Full schedule for Richmond

Hamlin played host, inviting fellow Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star Kyle Busch along for the charity event. Their fellowship drew both a stellar field of regional Late Model Stock heavyweights and a full gathering in the grandstands, packed with — in the Rev. Potter’s words — “God-fearin’ people with a heart of gold.”

Hamlin held on to win the 200-lap feature, which returned after a two-year hiatus with a first appearance at the Tidewater-area track. He fended off intense pressure from Busch and Norfolk wheelman C.E. Falk III over the final stage.

Hamlin lent his name to the event but also his support, with all proceeds going to the Denny Hamlin Foundation, which funds research and therapy for cystic fibrosis. The mayor of Hampton declared Thursday as “Denny Hamlin Day” in a pre-race proclamation, but the event was less about pomp and circumstance than catching up with familiar faces at the site of Hamlin’s earliest successes, which include a Mini Stock Division championship at Langley in 1997.

“It’s awesome because you see so many people who support this grassroots racing here at Langley will be at the race track this weekend in Richmond,” Hamlin said. “I see them in the pit area all the time — people that either worked on my race cars or I used to race against them — it’s nostalgic for me. It really brings back a lot of good memories to see all those faces and the people that have helped me along the way.”

The Super Street field assembles on the Langley Speedway frontstretch.
Zack Albert | NASCAR Digital Media

Here’s hoping it’s part of a trend. Kevin Harvick dipped into the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West earlier this season in his home state, casting a wider light on the developmental tour. And larger short-track shows have also attracted Monster Energy Series participants, amplifying the competition and the stature for both.

RELATED: How Harvick walks the walk

“Denny does it as kind of a way to give back, but at the end of the day, it’s for the short-track racers here,” says Peyton Sellers, the 2005 national champion in what’s now the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. “It used to be all about the stars, but now it’s all about the short-track stars. Denny and Kyle are here, don’t get me wrong, but this is a premier event for short-track racing throughout the Southeast here. It’s just neat to be able to race in front of this many people at one time, showcasing talent, and at the same time they’ve put a lot of money on the line, so it’s good in all angles.”

For fans, there was plenty to see. Pressed against the catch-fencing during driver introductions, they weathered unseasonably chilly temperatures and a fierce wind, arriving early and staying late.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal,” said Ryan Vargas, a 17-year-old regular for Rev Racing in the K&N Series. “I mean, you see it by the crowd turnout. The stands have been half-full since noon. It’s insane. And then they added grandstands to (turns) three and four. The fans love it. The drivers love it. They get to race against guys that they watch on Sundays.”

Sellers says he’d like to see more of it — more incentives, bigger purses, stronger fields and a more intimate connection to the home-grown level of stock-car racing. Hamlin, for his part, indicated he’s in, hinting over the public-address system that the Short Track Showdown would likely return to Langley in 2019.

On a night of congregation to benefit the sport’s roots, it was a fitting message worth preaching.

“I don’t see any reason why not,” Hamlin said. “This place has done a great job hosting us and being so good to us. It’s hard to say no when you can pack the house like we did tonight.”