For the second time in as many seasons, Denny Hamlin broke Matt DiBenedetto’s heart, before NASCAR removed the pathos from the situation with a post-race ruling.
At the end of a third overtime at Talladega Superspeedway, Hamlin beat DiBenedetto to the finish line to win by .023 seconds — roughly two feet — in Sunday’s YellaWood 500 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at the 2.66-mile track.
But NASCAR erased the close call by penalizing DiBenedetto for forcing William Byron below the yellow line separating the racing surface from the apron in Turn 4 on the final lap. That made a runner-up of Erik Jones and dropped DiBenedetto to 21st at the finish.
With a comfortable playoff point cushion, Hamlin started from the pole but spent the vast majority of the race riding in the back. However, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota took advantage of high attrition, a fast car and a fresh set of tires to pull out his seventh victory of the season, his second at Talladega and the 44th of his career, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott for 18th all-time.
“Just a lot of attrition,” said Hamlin, who beat DiBenedetto at Bristol with a late pass last year. “We just played the strategy and the numbers game to run in the back until we were locked in. Just things worked out. We finally got one back. This one was unexpected to say the least, but proud of this whole FedEx team, Toyota and everyone at JGR for bringing great race cars.”
Playoff driver Chase Elliott initially was penalized for passing below the yellow line on the final lap, but NASCAR reviewed the video and rescinded the penalty after determining Elliott was forced below the boundary. NASCAR also reviewed Hamlin’s trip to the apron in the final corner but determined that he had had been forced to go there to avoid a wreck.
“A lot of stuff happened, for sure,” said Hamlin, who clinched a spot in the Round of 8 with the win. “I don’t know if the 21 (DiBenedetto) was running out of gas, but they obviously got shuffled there. They were crashing up top. I think the 20 (Jones) hit the wall and then started coming back down, which forced, I think, me and the 24 (William Byron) down to the apron.
“Just was able to overcome. This is one of those that you don’t plan on winning, but we got away with one today.”
After the penalties, Ty Dillon was credited with third place, Byron with fourth and Elliott with fifth, as multi-car wrecks made mincemeat of the fortunes of the majority of playoff drivers.
An 11-car wreck on Lap 108, 11 circuits before the end of Stage 2, had a dramatic effect on the playoff landscape. While attempting to push Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet in the tri-oval, Clint Bowyer turned the No. 48 of the seven-time champion, igniting a melee that eliminated Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Daniel Suarez and Brendan Gaughan from the race.
Busch, last Sunday’s Las Vegas winner, was launched over the hood of Custer’s Ford, but landed on his tires, his No. 1 Chevrolet destroyed. Brother Kyle Buch, already damaged in two earlier incidents, trailed the wreck but couldn’t avoid it and sustained additional damage after contact with Gaughan’s Chevrolet.
Kyle Busch persevered, only to be collected in a massive wreck that caused the 12th caution and sent the race to overtime. He finished 27th and enters the final race of the Round of 12 tied with Austin Dillon, 21 points below the current cutoff for the Round of 8.
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“The car was just real slow due to all of the damage, obviously, so I’m just holding up the line,” Busch said of his final wreck. “I was trying to draft off the guys in front of me, and I’m pushing too much backwards on the guys that are trying to push me forwards and it creates a wreck.”
Austin Dillon recovered from multiple accidents to come home 12th, the third-highest finish for a playoff driver.
As the cars jockeyed for position near the end of Stage 1, Bowman — pushed aggressively by Logano in the top lane — pinballed into the rear of race leader Aric Almirola’s No. 10, sending it into the outside wall on the backstretch on Lap 58.
Kyle Busch, and Ryan Blaney were innocent victims of the accident, but both drivers were able to continue, as was Bowman, who finished 14th and is 22 points above the Round of 8 cutline.
Almirola wasn’t as fortunate. Knocked out of the race by the accident, he fell to 12th in the standings, 48 points below the cut line and almost certainly will have to win next Sunday at the Charlotte Roval to advance to the Round of 8 in the Playoff.
“I’m just disappointed,” Almirola said. “We were doing everything we needed to do. We were closing in to the end of stage one, and it looked like we were going to score a lot of points there, which is exactly what we needed to do. It looks like he got to my outside and my car started to turn to the right, so it’s unfortunate.
“I don’t know if he got in the back of me and hooked me or how that played out, but my car just made a hard right into the fence. It’s unfortunate. I had a lot of confidence going into today. I thought we were going to have a good shot to win. Our car was so fast, but unfortunately the Good Lord had different plans for us today. We’ll go onto the Roval and try one more time.”
In a race that went 12 laps beyond its scheduled distance and featured 58 lead changes among 18 different drivers, Ryan Newman, Tyler Reddick, John Hunter Nemechek, Brennan Poole and Ryan Preece finished sixth through 10th, respectively.
Like DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, who led three times for 15 laps, was penalized for forcing a car below the yellow line on the final lap. He was dropped from sixth to 22nd, the final position on the lead lap.
Note: Inspection in the NASCAR Cup Series garage was all clear with no issues and no lug-nut issues.