RICHMOND, Va. — After leading nearly half of Saturday night’s race at Richmond Raceway, Denny Hamlin felt like he needed just two more laps.
The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver led 197 of the 400 laps in the second NASCAR Cup Series Round of 16 playoff race at the 0.75-mile oval, but the final round of green-flag pit stops placed Hamlin behind teammate Martin Truex Jr. With five laps remaining, Hamlin was roughly 2.7 seconds behind Truex. The final margin of victory was 1.417 seconds.
A couple more circuits around the short track might have been the trick for the Chesterfield, Virginia, native.
“We got a little bit off track with our car in the middle of the race, but there in the end, we definitely made the right adjustments and was coming, just a little bit too late,” Hamlin said. “We had a couple slow stops under green. That’s kind of the difference.”
It was a 1-2-3 sweep at night’s end for JGR drivers, staking their claim early in the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs after Hamlin earned victory last Sunday at Darlington Raceway to lock himself into the next round. Christopher Bell finished third.
Bell noted his target points position coming out of Richmond was 20 markers above the elimination line. Now sitting 17 points ahead with the podium result, his focus is on staying out of trouble next Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“Yeah, I feel good about it, and Bristol is a really good race track for our company and me,” Bell said. “It’s just you can get caught up in stuff so easily at Bristol. It’s nice to have a buffer and hopefully we can go to Bristol and have an uneventful event.”
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Kyle Busch was also in the mix up front in the closing stages, but a costly pit-road speeding penalty in the final stint of pit stops dropped the No. 18 Toyota driver back to a ninth-place finish, the final car on the lead lap. Busch has an eight-point buffer over the elimination line heading into Bristol.
Hendrick Motorsports showcased the most dominant speed throughout the regular season, but it’s now JGR who appears to be firing off on all cylinders at the right time. Kyle Larson is the only Hendrick driver locked into the Round of 12 so far, while defending champion Chase Elliott is 19 points above the elimination line.
Alex Bowman and William Byron are on the outside looking in. Bowman is tied with Kurt Busch for 12th, while Byron is 18 points below the elimination line.
“Well, it’s go time now,” Hamlin said. “Ultimately it’s the time where you’ve got to bring your best. All JGR teams had fast cars for all of us today, and we just — I really wish we would have got two in a row, but regardless, still a great day for our team.”
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