Twenty points below the cut line, Denny Hamlin wasn’t exactly boiling over with confidence when he arrived in Arizona to race in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs cutdown race at ISM Raceway.
He was talking about how 2019 would not be a failure were he not to advance to next weekend’s Championship 4 race in Homestead, Fla., and how finishing a career without a championship would not be a disgrace.
But on Sunday afternoon, Hamlin’s tone did a 180 as took the lead on Lap 178 of the 312-lap Bluegreen Vacations 500 and then survived a late-race restart to drive to his sixth victory of the season and second in 29 starts at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.
“One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that,” said Hamlin, who led 143 laps, many of those by large margins.
The victory for the two-time Daytona 500 winner came a week after an unforced spin at Texas Motor Speedway contributed to his points woes and negativity earlier in the weekend.
“Can’t believe it,” said Hamlin, who in 2010 may have cost himself that year’s championship with a horrible performance in Arizona. “I put them (his Joe Gibbs Racing team) in a bad hole last week and I told them today in the meeting, I said, ‘I’m going to give everything I got to make up for the mistake I made last week.’ And that’s all I got.”
Hamlin joined Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick – who had previously won Round of 8 races at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, respectively — in the championship Round of 4.
Hamlin’s teammate, Kyle Busch, finished second and earned the fourth and final berth in next weekend’s championship-decider in South Florida by way of points.
The margin of victory was .377 seconds.
“Just didn’t quite have enough,” Busch, who led 69 laps, said. “I think the 11 (Hamlin’s) was the best car in practice. I knew we were going to be about third to fifth and we were second, so ...
“Cool to have a chance to go race for a championship, obviously,” said Busch, whose winless streak moved to 21 races. “We just keep coming up short.”
Rounding out the top five were Ryan Blaney of Team Penske, Kyle Larson of Chip Ganassi Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick.
The race started with six drivers competing for the final two spots in the Championship 4 — Busch, Joey Logano, Hamlin, Blaney, Larson and Chase Elliott.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Logano, who started the race above the cutline and led 90 laps, faded in the final stage. He finished ninth and lost his shot at winning a second straight Cup championship.
“No clue,” Logano said when asked what happened to a race car which had won the second stage. “No clue. It went from a car that could lead and win a stage and run really well. From what they tell me an air pressure (in his tires) adjustment made it go from a good, winning car to can’t stay on the lead lap. One of the tightest things I’ve ever driven. Doesn’t make any sense.”
Hendrick Motorsports’ Elliott needed to win in order to advance – he didn’t. He spun and rammed the wall on Lap 166. It was his second major wreck in the last two races as he popped the wall at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday. Too bad, too, because he had a fast car and was running third when he crashed.