The race statistics will show that Denny Hamlin led a dominant 138 of the 267 laps in Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but the truth is he had to earn every fraction of a second that he paced the field. It was a thrilling chase for the checkered flag, lap-after-lap among the front-running cars.
Hamlin ultimately took the lead for good — passing Chase Elliott with 29 laps remaining after a series of green-flag pit stops swapped the two cars’ positions in front of the field. Elliott had to pit a lap earlier than Hamlin and held a 1.5-second lead in the dozen or so laps after the green-flag stops. But Hamlin was able to catch up with Elliott as they tried to get around the race’s early leader Joey Logano, who was running two laps down at the time.
With his .895-second victory over Hendrick Motorsports’ Elliott and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, Hamlin became the NASCAR Cup Series’ first three-race winner on the season. It was Hamlin’s 40th NASCAR Cup Series career win and third career victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle for most wins all-time on the 1.5-mile oval.
“Our car was just really good,” Hamlin told FOX Sports after climbing out of his race-winning No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “This is the car kinda based off what we had here in the fall last year going for the (2019) championship. We had a strong car all day, obviously, with the laps led and able to get around Chase there at the end. This whole FedEx team has just done a phenomenal job and this Camry, this one is real special.
“I didn’t know. It seemed like the end of these races seem to be Chase’s best suit, but I knew that if I was just patient and ran the pace I wanted and the pace I was comfortable with we were going to be hard to beat in the long run.”
Rookie Tyler Reddick, who won the 2018 and 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Homestead, finished in fourth place. Aric Almirola, a Florida native, was a season-best fifth place. Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, rookie Christopher Bell, William Byron and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
The last rookie to earn a top-10 finish at Homestead was David Ragan, 13 years ago. On Sunday night there were two rookies in the top 10 and it was a career-best NASCAR Cup Series finish for both — Reddick and Bell.
Hamlin’s Toyota was so strong it won both the first and second stages — only the fifth time a driver has swept the opening two stages this season. And he is the first driver in 2020 to sweep both stages and win the race.
That last round of green-flag pit stops proved to be a challenge for Hamlin. Elliott, who pit one lap sooner than Hamlin, returned to the track and held a 1.5-second advantage over Hamlin with 45 laps remaining. Hamlin got around him as they approached Logano who fought hard not to go another lap down.
“Just need to get through lapped traffic better,” Elliott said. “I thought our Hooters Camaro really was good enough to win and I thought we executed a really nice race and kept it off the wall almost the whole race, kinda got it there at the end. But I’m proud of the effort and we’re bringing fast cars right now.”
From 2002-2019 this Homestead stop on the schedule was the November championship finale. And before the COVID-19 break in racing this year, it was originally scheduled for March. Lightning in the area — as is common in South Florida in June — however, parked the cars for nearly three hours under red-flag conditions on Sunday.
The break ended up being a game-changer for Team Penske driver Logano, who jumped out to the early lead — showing the way in the afternoon between the two red-flag periods for lightning but was involved in a pit road collision that changed his race fate and left him playing catch-up.
Kevin Harvick, who was also involved in the pit mishap with Logano, finished 26th. He still remains atop the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings, however, by eight points over Elliott as the series moves to Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 next Sunday, June 21.