Hamlin Claims Checkered Flag in Rain-Shortened Toyota 500
After a successful return to the track at Darlington Raceway on Sunday afternoon that had massive TV ratings, NASCAR regrouped and got ready for more action at the Track Too Tough to Tame with a mid-week race Wednesday night. The Toyota 500 was originally scheduled for a 7 pm ET start and was moved up to 6 pm ET due to the threat of inclement weather. As it turned out, the race was then delayed, even with the earlier start, due to rain hitting the area sooner than anticipated. The race eventually got underway and, as usual with races at Darlington, it made for some wild times around the 1.366 mile egg-shaped oval.
When all was said and done, it was Denny Hamlin earning his second win of the season as he claimed the rain-shortened Toyota 500. The race was actually scheduled for 228 laps, or 310 miles, but eventually was called by NASCAR officials after 208 laps due to a steady rain that continued to fall, well after the racers were pulled off the track. Hamlin knocked off Kyle Busch by 0.812 seconds to give Toyota a 1-2 finish at the track. Kevin Harvick, the series points leader and Sunday’s winner, finished third while Brad Keselowski was fourth in the race. All told, three of the top five finishers were Toyotas as Erik Jones continued his success at Darlington in his career by finishing fifth. With the win, Hamlin became the second racer on the season to win multiple races, joining Joey Logano.
For Hamlin, it wasn’t about volume, it was about timing when it came to leading the race. He held the lead in just 12 of the 208 laps but they were the most important ones in the race. Clint Bowyer crashed on lap 196, bringing out the caution flag. While all the other leaders went to pit road, Hamlin chose to stay out on the track and took the lead. As it turned out, he raced just one green flag lap before an accident that took out Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott while bringing out a caution on lap 202. The drivers raced under yellow the rest of the way before pulling into the pits and having the race called.
In the race, the final caution from Elliott and Busch’s accident brought a confrontation between Alan Gustafson, who is Elliott’s crew chief and who used to be the crew chief for Busch from 2005-07 when both were with Hendrick Motorsports, and Busch after the race was over. Elliott flipped Busch the bird on the apron of the track after the race was over. For what it’s worth, which in the heat of the moment, likely wasn’t much, Busch admitted that he was at fault for the accident and apologized for what transpired:
"There's no question I made a mistake and just misjudged the gap. They're upset. They're mad. I'm not just going to fix it and we're going to go have ice cream tomorrow. They're going to dwell on it, and I'm sure there are repercussions of it I'm going to have down the road."
Bowyer’s crash wiped out what was a solid race for him as he became the first driver this season to win the first two stages of a race. His crash on lap 194 that led to the caution that pushed Hamlin to the front took him out of the mix. He led a race-high 71 laps after leading only 17 in his previous 15 trips to Darlington but finished 22nd. Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., who finished 10th, Elliott (39th), Logano (sixth), Alex Bowman (18th) and Hamlin (first) were the only racers to be in the top 10 of both stages of the race. From a betting perspective, if you read my take on the race from earlier this week, Harvick to finish in the top ten (-143), Jones to finish in the top ten (-134) and Hamlin to finish in the top five (+125) were all winners.
The race at Darlington Wednesday night was historic as it marked the first time that the NASCAR circuit has run on Wednesday night since 1984. It also marked the first time that NASCAR had two points race at the same track in the same week. For those of you looking for more NASCAR action, you won’t have to wait long. The Coca Cola 600 takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 24. Qualifying for the race will be run the same day in order to set the field for that one.