DARLINGTON, S.C. – It looked like more of the same at Darlington Raceway for driver Denny Hamlin — until post-race inspection happened.
A five-time NASCAR Xfinity Series winner at the 1.366-mile track, Hamlin was first across the finish line in Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200, but the disqualification of Hamlin’s No. 18 Toyota for a ride-height violation made a winner of Cole Custer, who trailed Hamlin by .602 seconds at the finish line.
RELATED: Race results
“It’s a really strange feeling, honestly — obviously,” Custer said after being notified he was the winner. “You don’t want it that way, but it is what it is. We all play by the same rules. Was that the deciding factor? No.
“But it is what it is. We get the points. We get the money. We get the trophy, I guess. It’s a way to win.”
The victory was the first for Custer at the Track Too Tough to Tame and his sixth of the season, tying him with fourth-place finisher Christopher Bell for most in the series this year. Custer now has eight career Xfinity wins.
RELATED: Xfinity Series standings
The disqualification ruined a strong effort from Hamlin, who started 37th in a backup car after slapping the outside wall early in Friday’s opening practice. Hamlin took the lead on Lap 121 of 147 and held it the rest of the way.
And though Hamlin’s efforts became moot with the disqualification, he overcame issues with the handling of the backup No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota through the first two 45-lap stages of the event and was able to withstand a determined closing run by Custer.
“We did not have the best car by any means, but luckily, the techniques I’ve learned over so many years kind of (helped) us there,” Hamlin said before learning of the disqualification. “The guys did a great job getting this car ready.”
Abandoning the NBC Sports broadcast booth for his only race of the year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran fifth as the highest finishing JR Motorsports entry.
Custer hounded Hamlin after a restart with 10 laps left and ran the bottom through Turns 1 and 2 to gain ground. On several occasions over the final five laps, he pulled within a car-length of Hamlin’s bumper but couldn’t quite get to the winner.
“I thought I had him,” Custer said after climbing from his car. “I really wanted it — finishing second here really sucks. You really want to win at one of the marquee places … I couldn’t get a run off of (Turn) 4. I don’t know — it was so close.”
As it turned out, it was close enough.
Series leader Tyler Reddick ran second after leading a race-high 70 laps. Pole winner Ryan Blaney, the only other driver to hold the lead, was third after spending 50 laps at the point. Bell, Earnhardt, Chase Briscoe, Brandon Jones, Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier and Austin Cindric completed the top 10.
Earnhardt was pleased with his performance in the one-off start.
“I love this place,” said Earnhardt, whose No. 8 Chevrolet was sporting a paint scheme commemorating his father’s first start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Charlotte in 1975. “We love Darlington. … You never know how good you are till you come back and try it.
“All these guys are elite. All these guys do this every single week, and they’re very, very talented. To think you can take a year off and come back and be good … you just never know. But we did all right!”
With two races left before the cutoff for the Xfinity Playoffs at Las Vegas, Reddick holds a 51-point lead over Bell in the race for the regular-season title. Custer is 136 points back in third place.
The disqualification was the fifth this year under the enforcement policy NASCAR adopted this season, all in either the Xfinity or Gander Outdoors Truck Series. Hamlin was the second race winner to suffer a disqualification, the other being Ross Chastain in a Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway.