In what could be a sneak preview of the Championship 4 race later this year, Denny Hamlin outdueled Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. to win the Super Start Batteries 400 presented by O'Reilly Auto Parts Thursday night at Kansas Speedway.
After a wild restart on Lap 246, Hamlin passed Harvick for the lead on Lap 255 of 267 and held off a late charge from Keselowski to score his NASCAR Cup Series-best fifth victory of the season, his third at Kansas and the 42nd of his career.
Hamlin led four times for a race-high 57 laps to rebound from three sub-par finishes in what otherwise has been a stellar season for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team.
“I don’t know if we had the best car—we definitely had a top-three car all day,” said Hamlin, who has won two straight races at Kansas. “We just went and got it there at the end. I saw the 4 (Harvick) getting loose, and usually when you’re loose, you’re not able to run up high, and that was a benefit for us to be able to get that momentum going…
“We’ve had a rough three weeks—we were leading at Indy when we blew a tire, but it seems like we’re really hitting on all cylinders right now.”
Moments after the final restart, Harvick made a deft move to slip past Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman. Hamlin followed and started to close the gap by running the top lane on the 1.5-mile track. Harvick’s car was too loose to take Hamlin’s line, and after chasing for eight laps, Hamlin made the pass for the lead with relative ease.
“We needed a miracle,” said Harvick, who spent most of the night running in or near the top five, before grabbing his short-lived lead on the final run. “Our Busch Light Apple Ford Mustang was really loose. We got a couple good restarts and had a couple good laps, but we were in trouble there regardless, if it didn’t just keep going yellow.
“Our guys did a good job keeping us in the fight all night, but we definitely have some work to do.”
Keselowski followed Hamlin past Harvick, and Truex soon followed to secure the third position. Truex led 44 laps and Keselowski 30 in a race that featured a surfeit of action, as the 11 cautions implied.
“I thought Denny and I were probably pretty close to equal the second half of the night,” said Keselowski, who picked up his fifth stage win of the season in Stage 2. “It was just a matter of who got out in front. We didn’t get out in front on the restarts there, and he was able to take advantage and bring home the win. All in all, it was still a really good day.”
Kyle Busch, who led 52 laps, won the first 80-lap stage to collect his first Playoff point of the season, but his race fell apart with 40 laps left when he slid into the outside wall and was forced to pit road with a flat right front tire.
Busch recovered to finish 11th, but the reigning series champion saw his winless streak reach 19 races, his longest drought to start a season since his first full-time campaign in 2005.
The race was a disaster for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who came to Kansas two points inside the current Playoff cutline. Johnson was an innocent victim of a Lap 176 wreck triggered when Joey Logano slapped the outside wall after his left front tire lost air.
Matt DiBenedetto and Austin Dillon also were collected in the crash, but Johnson suffered the most, finishing 32nd and dropping to 18th in the standings, eight points behind Sunoco rookie Tyler Reddick in the race for the final Playoff berth.
Harvick held the fourth position at the finish. Erik Jones ran fifth, followed by Aric Almirola (scoring his eighth straight top 10), Cole Custer, Bowman, Kurt Busch and Byron. In the race for the regular-season championship, Harvick leads second-place Keselowski by 97 points.