Denny Hamlin vaults to first Cup victory of the year at Richmond
Denny Hamlin stormed past William Byron with five laps to go to snag the Cup Series win Sunday at Richmond Raceway.
Hamlin had yet to score a top-10 finish through the season’s first six races, but a strategy call by crew chief Chris Gabehart brought the No. 11 Toyota to pit road for fresh tires at Lap 354, later than anyone else in the field.
Running fourth with 20 laps to go, Hamlin erased what was then a 10.628-second deficit to race leader Byron, who last pitted at Lap 311 and had burnt up his tires. The final 137 laps ran caution-free, allowing a multitude of different pit strategies to unfold in the race’s late stages.
MORE: Richmond results, points
MORE: What drivers said
The victory puts Toyota back in the winner’s circle for the first time since Bubba Wallace won at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2021.
“Great strategy there,” Hamlin told FOX Sports. “Drove as hard as I could. Just so proud of this whole FedEx Camry team, man, just never giving up.”
On a similar strategy, Kevin Harvick charged to second and finished 0.552 seconds behind Hamlin for his first top five of the season. Completing the top five were Byron, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. Rounding out the top 10 were Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon.
Byron led a career-best 122 laps, including a 71-lap stretch that spanned Laps 325-395. But with older tires, Byron, who won two weeks ago at Atlanta, was unable to fend off Hamlin’s charge.
Truex won Stage 2 and looked to have one of the cars to beat, leading 80 laps Sunday. The No. 19 team scored the best average running position at 3.88, according to NASCAR’s loop-data statistics. But the No. 19 was caught off-guard by Byron’s attempt to go the final 89 laps without pitting. And even then, Truex had nothing to hold off Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
Even Truex team seems caught off guard by Byron's strategy...they thought he was going to pit again and just now told Truex that Byron is going to go to the end and has a three-second lead.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) April 3, 2022
Blaney, who began the race from the pole, led the opening 128 laps at what has statistically been his worse track. But after losing the lead during a sequence of pit stops, the No. 12 Ford never regained the top spot despite leading the most laps.
Busch was running sixth late in the race but incurred a penalty in the final stage. An earlier pit-road miscue resulted in a crew member placing tape on the grille of his No. 18 Toyota. While that was common practice in previous generations of NASCAR, tape on the grille is now outlawed. Busch served the stop-and-go penalty at Lap 351 and rallied for a ninth-place finish.
Kurt Busch brought out the first of five cautions Sunday at Lap 11 when fuel pick-up issues brought his car to a halt on the backstretch. The No. 45 team repaired the issue in the garage area but Busch finished 35th, 109 laps down.
Stage 2 ran caution-free, but two quick cautions at the beginning of Stage 3 began to shake up some teams’ strategy plans.
Cody Ware was sent into the Turn 2 wall after contact from Erik Jones at Lap 246. Ten laps later, Austin Cindric was sent spinning down the backstretch after contact between Ty Dillon and Cole Custer sent Custer into Cindric. Cindric avoided further contact and finished 20th.
There were no issues in post-race inspection. The Nos. 19 and 99 cars will be taken to NASCAR’s R&D Center for further teardown.
Stage 1 winner: Ryan Blaney
Stage 2 winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Who had a good race: Christopher Bell scored his second consecutive top-10 finish Sunday, ending the day sixth to follow up a third-place effort one week ago at Circuit of the Americas. Bell scored the third-best average running position at Richmond (5.54) and led a career-best 63 laps, nearly doubling his previous best of 32. ... A 13th-place effort for Brad Keselowski may not sound like much for the 2012 Cup champion, but after dismal showings at the exhibition race at the quarter-mile track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway, it was a good turnaround for the No. 6 team. At the ¾-mile Richmond, Keselowski scored points in both stages for the first time since the Daytona 500.
Who had a bad race: Aric Almirola finished 21st Sunday and was never a factor at Richmond. After scoring four straight finishes of 12th or better to start the season, Almirola now has three consecutive finishes of 19th or worse. ... Bubba Wallace struggled all weekend, including a spin in practice, en route to a 26th-place finish, three laps down.
Noteable: Kyle Larson’s fifth-place finish ends a streak of three straight finishes outside the top 25. The defending series champion earned his third top-five of the season, adding to a win at Auto Club and a runner-up finish at Las Vegas. ... Hamlin’s 47th career victory ranks him 17th in all-time wins and ends a 12-race streak of races won by drivers age 30 or younger.
Next race: The series shifts to Martinsville Speedway on April 8 for the first Saturday night race of the season (7 p.m. ET, FS1).