Hamlin, vets put on master class at Richmond, halt young drivers’ streak

RICHMOND, Va. — With his home state triumph Sunday at Richmond Raceway, Denny Hamlin is the first driver over 30 years old to win a NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race in 2022.

While younger drivers like Ryan Blaney and William Byron made their statuses known at the .75-mile Virginia short track by combining to lead more than half of the race’s 400 laps, the ending belonged to Hamlin. The 41-year-old Cup Series mainstay passed Byron with five laps remaining after a savvy pit call by crew chief Chris Gabehart to put on fresh tires with 46 to go, while Byron’s team took the risk of trying to maintain the lead while nursing 76-lap older tires to the bitter end.

Blaney and crew chief Jonathan Hassler also elected to keep older tires in lieu of track position. Byron finished third, while Blaney came home seventh — short of Victory Lane but positive steps for the young drivers, with a pair of career-best finishes at a track where both have admittedly struggled.

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Alternative pit strategy and tire conservation was key. While Hamlin’s three prior victories and 12,011 laps of Cup Series experience around Richmond played a major role in Sunday’s victory, he stopped short of saying veterans had the full advantage.

“It’s tough to really draw a parallel to that,” Hamlin said. “When you have so many laps at a track like this that is so technical, even though it doesn’t look technical it is, usually with track knowledge, it does matter at this track.”

Hamlin’s late run through the field was also accompanied by a similar tire strategy for Kevin Harvick, who followed the No. 11 Toyota to a second-place finish. Hamlin’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., rolled the dice on the same game plan as Byron, holding onto fourth place.

“At the end there, I think we just tried to gamble on beating the 24 (Byron) and then he ended up doing our strategy and we both screwed up,” Truex said. “Heads up the other way, I think we had the best car, but it doesn’t matter.”

Hamlin, Harvick and Truex — all over 40 years old — have a combined 10 victories and 41,600 laps completed at Richmond. That experience certainly paid off, especially considering Toyota’s noted struggles to find speed in its Next Gen car in the first six races of the season.

“When our car is not performing how we need it to perform, we can do things to manipulate it, to maximize lap times to at least put us in the game,” Hamlin said. “I think being a veteran in the sport probably helps in those instances.”

That vital knowledge not only put Hamlin in the game, but on top of his game, placing him in the provisional playoff field once again come September — a field already stacked with six drivers 29 years old and under.

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