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October 2, 2023

Denny Hamlin rallies at Talladega as Toyota game plan goes ‘back to the drawing board’

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin found solace and some positive points after Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, recovering from a pit-road speeding penalty to claim third place in a mammoth rally with 20 laps to go. His place in the postseason standings is the most secure among those who aren’t already Round of 12 winners, but the rest of his Toyota mates are facing a mixed bag of scenarios.

Hamlin emerged from Sunday’s YellaWood 500 with a 50-point gap on the provisional elimination line, with just one race remaining — Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course (2 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) — before four more drivers are ousted from title eligibility. Only Ryan Blaney, the Talladega winner, and William Byron, Sunday’s runner-up and a victor the previous week in Texas, have earned automatic passage to the Round of 8.

RELATED: Talladega results | Playoff Pulse

Hamlin was penalized when his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was clocked as too fast in the first section of pit road on Lap 105 of the 188-lap distance. The infraction knocked him to 33rd in the 38-car field and off the lead lap, a deficit he would not regain until receiving the free pass in a caution period with 25 laps remaining.

“Just (expletive) up like I’ve done like every year in the playoffs,” said Hamlin, who led once for three laps and was the only Toyota driver to finish among the top 10. “So I mean, I don’t know, it’s just dumb, and certainly it’s the one time in the race, you just can’t do it under green, and I managed to but also managed to get the lucky dog and then drive to the front.”

Driving forward was made difficult for each of the five Toyota drivers still alive in the playoffs from early on. Pitting in sequence with the rest of the Camry crowd in Stage 1 turned costly. Fords made green-flag stops together on Lap 38, with most of the contending Chevrolets hitting pit road one lap later. The Toyota group waited until Lap 41, and as those drivers were getting back up to speed to rejoin the fray, the pack overwhelmed them and whisked by, leaving them mired back in the field when the pay window opened for stage points at the first break.

Stage points were tough to come by in general for the automaker. Of the five Toyota playoff contenders, only Tyler Reddick grabbed a single stage point for his 10th-place finish at Stage 2. He was among those lamenting how their pack mentality didn’t result in forward progress.

“No, it really didn’t, unfortunately,” said Reddick, who placed 16th with a No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota damaged in final-lap bedlam at the checkered flag. “You know, I think just the pack racing’s evolving, teams are getting smarter. They kind of know what they need to do, and we’re just gonna have to keep getting … going back to the drawing board and be creative on our end, right, to figure it out and make it work.”

Hamlin, whose superspeedway prowess has three Daytona 500 wins to vet for it, was also feeling stymied.

“I mean, I need to look at the final finishing order, but I’m not convinced that manufacturers sticking with each other is the right move,” Hamlin said. “I’m just, because in my opinion, there’s probably … and actually, I talked to five of what I thought was the best superspeedway racers going into this race and said, ‘Do you feel like you can show off your skill set as much in Next Gen?’ No, because of alliances and because of this and the other. So it just, it handcuffs what drivers that are really special doing this, when you have to run right behind whoever is in front of you, it certainly puts the cuffs on you.”

Hamlin heads to the Round of 8 finale with the most comfortable of playoff margins, and his two JGR teammates are also on the plus side — Christopher Bell, up 22 points on the provisional elimination line, and Martin Truex Jr. at plus-17. The other Toyota drivers from the 23XI Racing camp are both below the line, with Reddick at minus-2 and teammate Bubba Wallace — a 23rd-place finisher Sunday — with a nine-point deficit.

Behind Hamlin, Bell was the best of the rest among Toyotas with a 14th-place result Sunday. Those finishes further back were a missed opportunity to make better gains on fellow playoff competitors Brad Keselowski and Ross Chastain, who both exited Sunday’s 500-miler early in separate crashes.

Wallace voiced those concerns over the No. 23 team’s radio, and he added post-race that their group fought uphill for track position nearly from the start.

“Yeah, that goes back to the plan,” Wallace said. “Like, we’re trying to let Toyotas in, like, I’m all for it. So if Toyota, anybody at JGR sees this, I’m all for it, but it was just hurting us, and it was just pulling us back. So we gotta, I think we’ve got to fight to get to the front, and then when it’s time to give and take, we start doing it there. But we were riding around 20th and like, ‘Hey, come on, get in line,’ and that moves our line back, so it’s like, well, that didn’t really do any help. So we’ve just got to revamp it, but yeah, just one of those days.”