Denny Hamlin prevailed in a tight door-to-door bump-and-go pass on Kyle Larson with seven laps remaining to claim a historic all-time best seventh NASCAR Cup Series victory at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway – the win in Sunday’s HighPoint.com 400 also marking Hamlin’s 50th career trophy and second of the 2023 season.
The race ended under caution for a last lap incident elsewhere on track, and the Pocono crowd voiced its displeasure, booing loudly as Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led the field to pit road at the 2.5-mile track after the checkered flag. Hamlin, 42, maintained the action was just close-quarter racing for a win. Larson, who finished 21st after the contact, disagreed and was none too happy with his good friend and golf partner.
“Both guys wrecked themselves,’’ Hamlin said of Larson and contact he had earlier with Larson’s teammate Alex Bowman. “There was a lane. He [Larson] missed the corner first and evidently didn’t have his right side tires clean and when he gassed up and got going again, you have an option in those positions to either hold it wide open and hit the fence or lift and race it out.
“Those were choices they made. I didn’t hit either one of them. Didn’t touch them.’’
“I love it, I love it,’’ Hamlin said, acknowledging the boos.
“I thought we had the best car and the strategy worked out. Just so happy we’re winning these races we should win.’’
Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, did not mince words after climbing out of his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Instead of a Top-5 finish – or possible victory – he recovered from the incident to cross the finish line 21st.
“First off, really proud of my team, they got us in position to race for the win,’’ said Larson, who did earn the Stage 2 win – his third of the year. “We got spun early [in the race] and the car was never really the same after that, but we played the strategy really well to get us up there. Just unfortunate.
“I’ve been cost a lot of good finishes by him throughout my career, and I know he says that I race a certain way, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to apologize to him about anything, not that I’m sure he’ll say ‘I’m sorry’ after this but it is what it is.
“Just move on and try to go to Richmond, where we won earlier this year.
“It is what it is. Yeah, we’re friends. Yes, this makes things awkward. But he’s always right. All the buddies know, Denny’s always right. It is what it is. I’m not gonna let it tarnish our friendship off track. But I am pissed, and I feel like I should be pissed.
“I think at this point I have the right,’’ Larson said of potentially racing Hamlin differently on track going forward. “Like I’ve said, I’ve never had to apologize to him about anything I’ve done on the racetrack. I can count four or five times where he’s had to reach out to me and say, ‘sorry I’ve put you in a bad spot there.’ So eventually, like he says, you have to start racing people a certain way to get the respect back.’’
Hamlin earned Toyota its 600th career win in the three NASCAR national series combined and led his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. across the finish line. Tyler Reddick, who drives for the 23XI Racing Toyota team that Hamlin is part-owner of, finished third. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and the remaining two JGR cars of rookie Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell rounded out the Top-6.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Harrison Burton and Hendrick’s Chase Elliott rounded out the top-10. It marked the second top-10 of the season for the 22-year old Burton. And the effort from Elliott leaves him 59-points out of the 16-driver Playoff pool with five more regular season races remaining for the 2020 series champion to race for another trophy, after missing six races in 2023.
Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, the race polesitter William Byron, led the most laps (60) of the day, but finished 24th. He now trails Truex by 30 points for the regular season title.
Varying pit strategies – and in particular on the final green flag run - changed the leaderboard in the last 30-40 laps of the race. Some drivers that hadn’t run top-5 all day postponed their last stop hoping for a caution flag. However, the day’s strongest cars were in position to settle the trophy; some – such as Larson and Hamlin - on a two-tire pit stop and some – such as Truex and Byron - with four fresh tires.
There were 11 cautions on the day and incidents on three consecutive restarts after the Stage 1 break impacted the Playoff situations of multiple drivers.
The first re-start following the Stage break not only involved the Stage 1 winner Joey Logano, but also collected Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez who went into the race a mere 1-point behind Michael McDowell for that 16th and final Playoff position. McDowell’s car suffered some damage too, but he was able to drive on. Logano’s No. 22 Penske Racing Ford was towed back and repaired but Suarez’s No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet pit needing extensive work and ultimately drove back to the garage.
With five races remaining, Suarez dropped to 18th in the championship standings and his deficit to 16th place McDowell now stands at 23 points..
“At the end of the day it’s our fault we shouldn’t be back there with those guys, squirrels,’’ a frustrated Suarez said, adding, “It was a racing incident, but we shouldn’t be racing those guys. We can only control what we can control.”
The summer run to the Playoffs continues next week with the Cook Out 400 next Sunday afternoon at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Kevin Harvick is the defending race winner. Kyle Larson won at Richmond this Spring.