Working traffic adroitly over the final run on Saturday, Denny Hamlin cruised to victory in the Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway after passing Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with eight laps left.
At a track he considers one of his worst, based on past performance, Hamlin made up for a poor restart on Lap 193 of 311, gradually running down Truex, who was stuck behind the lapped car of Aric Almirola during the closing run.
“I’ve been running down the leaders the past few weeks, but I haven’t been able to get there,” said Hamlin, who won for the sixth time this season, tying Kevin Harvick for the NASCAR Cup Series lead. “We didn’t control that restart there, and we just had to battle back.
“We had to go back and get it, and I was able to work the top line there a little bit to get some momentum. Our car was just a little bit better at moving around, different lines.”
The victory in the first leg of a Saturday/Sunday Cup doubleheader was Hamlin’s first in 29 starts at the Monster Mile and the 43rd of his career, 19th most all-time and one win behind NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
“This Camry was really fast today,” Hamlin acknowledged. “It was unbelievable how good it was. The pit crew did an amazing job. ... We just have unbelievable cars right now. It just seems like we’re coming to the race track prepared.
“I’m putting the work in, and we’re getting results because of it. ... I can’t complain about anything right now. It just seems like we’ve got things going. You know, I’ve got faith. When it comes down to it on that last run, when (crew chief Chris Gabehart) says, ‘Go get it,’ I just go get it.”
Hamlin won the first and second stages, but Truex took the lead off pit road on Lap 188 under caution for the second stage break. After a cycle of green-flag pit stops that started on Lap 252, Truex regained the top spot on Lap 280 and held it until Hamlin passed him on Lap 303.
The driver of the No. 19 Toyota caught Almirola during the closing 119-lap green-flag run but couldn’t pass him. Truex grew frustrated as he chased Almirola’s No. 10 Ford.
“I think if the 10 car just wasn’t pinning it on the bottom in front of me, I’d have been fine,” said Truex, who finished 1.179 seconds behind Hamlin and notched the runner-up result after running third in the previous five Cup races. “Every time I tried to move up and get some air on my car, he’d just slide up in front of me like an idiot. He’s the reason we lost the lead, but in the end, we weren’t good enough.
“I thought the 11 (Hamlin) was better than us all day long. We got the lead there in the pits and were able to use clean air to our advantage. I was never happy with the car all day long. The balance was all over the place. It was firing off tight and getting really loose on long runs. At the end, there was nothing I could do. I was just out of control sideways.”
Kyle Busch ran third, as Joe Gibbs Racing swept the podium positions. Kevin Harvick was fourth and polesitter Chase Elliott fifth. Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. completed the top 10.
With a problem-free race at arguably his best track, Johnson, an 11-time Dover winner, vaulted past Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron into the final Playoff-eligible position. With the series returning to Dover for a 4 p.m. start on Sunday, Johnson has a three-point edge over Byron for the final berth in the postseason.
Byron fought an ill-handling car, fell of the lead lap midway through the second stage and finished 28th, dropping a net 28 points to his seven-time champion teammate.