Denny Hamlin became the season’s second multi-time winner, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota earning the rain-abbreviated Toyota 500 NASCAR Cup Series victory Wednesday night at Darlington Raceway.
This year’s Daytona 500 winner Hamlin took the lead during a late-race caution — opting to stay on track while most of the other front-runners pitted for fresh tires. Hamlin held off the field on the ensuing restart with 29 laps remaining and was out front when the final yellow flag came out for an incident directly behind him involving reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Chase Elliott.
A steady rain began to fall before the race could resume and NASCAR parked the cars on pit road with 20 laps remaining before calling the race minutes later as the rain intensified.
Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Sunday’s Darlington winner and current NASCAR Cup Series driver standings leader Kevin Harvick. Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones rounded out the top five followed by Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson, Matt DiBenedetto and Martin Truex Jr.
“I’ve got my happy face on, made sure I brought it with me today,” Hamlin said from inside his car on pit road, referring to a face mask depicting a huge smile. “The pit crew did a great job today, everybody really. I was pretty happy with how it all turned out.
“It’s a driver’s race track,” said the three-time Darlington winner. “You can move around and you can do different things to make your car handle and we got it right today.”
As a precaution to the global COVID-19 pandemic, no fans were in the grandstands. But for all those watching the race at home on FS1, it was an action-packed thriller and there was immediately a lot of talk on social media about the outcome and the closing laps.
As Hamlin took the victory questions on live television, Busch was approached by Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson to further discuss the incident with Elliott. Gustafson was Busch’s former crew chief when the two-time Cup champion drove for Hendrick Motorsports from 2005-07.
“There’s no question. I know I made a mistake and just misjudged the gap,” Busch said of the incident with Elliott.
“We were racing there with the 11 (Hamlin) and the 9 (Elliott) had a run on him and I knew he was there and I knew I needed to get in line as quickly as I could and in doing so, I watched him and his momentum going by me and I tried to look up in the mirror and see where Harvick was (behind) and get in and I just misjudged it,” Busch said. “I made a mistake and clipped the nine there and spun him in the wall. I hate it for him and his guys.
“I’ve got too many friends over there on that team to do anything like that on purpose. I’ve raced Chase since he was a kid and never had any issues with him whatsoever. It was just a mistake on my part and we’ll just have to deal with it later on.”
WATCH: Busch: ‘I made a mistake’
Certainly, it seemed the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet had their best runs in the closing laps. With 70 to go, all four cars were inside the top 10 with 2019 Darlington winner Erik Jones leading the way.
Earlier, however, Clint Bowyer looked to be the man to beat for much of the night. He became the first driver of the season to win both the first and second stages of the same race. And Bowyer’s race-best 71 laps out front were a personal best at the 1.366-mile speedway. He’d only led 17 laps total in 15 previous career starts at Darlington before tonight.
But with 34 laps remaining, Bowyer’s No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford hit the wall and spun, bringing out a caution and sending the fan favorite to the pits for an extended stop. He finished 22nd.
The race start was delayed about two hours as track workers dried the track from an earlier downpour and the green flag dropped for action at 8 p.m. ET. The racing was immediately on tempo — fast and furious, ultimately featuring 17 lead changes among 13 drivers with intense battles up front all evening.
The starting lineup featured an inverted field for the top 20 positions — based on the finish of Sunday’s Darlington race. Harvick, who collected his 50th career NASCAR Cup Series win on Sunday, had to start 20th alongside his runner-up Alex Bowman. The disadvantage did not last long, however, as both Harvick and Bowman made their way forward despite each brushing the famously notorious Darlington walls.
Harvick’s third-place showing — his sixth top-10 finish in as many races this season — was enough to keep him atop the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings by two points over Logano. Bowman is third in the championship — 37 points back from Harvick.
For the first time this season, Christopher Bell earned top rookie honors, scoring an 11th-place finish in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota. His previous best finish on the season was 21st in the season-opening Daytona 500.
The next NASCAR Cup Series race, the Coca-Cola 600, is slated for Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The NASCAR Xfinity Series Toyota 200 at Darlington Raceway will take place Thursday, May 21 at 12 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.