Hamlin Records Top-5 Finish at DarlingtonSeptember 5, 2016
Denny Hamlin returned to the famed Darlington Raceway over Labor Day weekend in the No. 11 Sport Clips Toyota Camry “Throwback Edition”, inspired by the No. 11 car driven by NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Darrell Waltrip in the 1980s, and came up just short of taming the “Lady in Black.” Due to inclement weather in the area caused by Hurricane Hermine, NASCAR officials cancelled all track activity on Friday, including qualifying, and set the 40-car field according to the NASCAR rule book, placing Hamlin in seventh for the start of the Bojangles’ Southern 500.
“I’m proud of the top-five runs that we’ve had going here lately," said Hamlin, who finished fourth to move up two spots to fifth in the driver points standings. "Darlington has definitely been a great a track for us. I just want more wins, obviously, but we really needed more long runs for that to try to materialize. Our car was very good when the track was rubbered up and really slick. Our pit crew did a great job tonight getting us up front, but I couldn’t get anywhere on the restarts. It didn’t go on the short runs and that was probably our Achilles’ heel tonight. Overall, it was a good weekend for us with Sport Clips on board. This track means a lot to them, just like it does to me, so I wish we could’ve gotten a win here again."
Shortly after the green flag dropped, Hamlin told crew chief Mike Wheeler that his Sport Clips Camry was lacking grip. Wheeler called for a green flag pit stop on lap 48 for four tires and fuel, knowing that the track conditions were rapidly changing as the sun began to set. By lap 94, Hamlin was still experiencing loose conditions in his Camry. Wheeler brought Hamlin back to pit road for another green flag pit stop just before the first caution arose on lap 96.
The second caution flag waved on lap 113 and Hamlin reported that he was just a tad tight, but he felt like the track was coming to him. The No. 11 Sport Clips Camry came back to pit road for four tires, fuel and a quick wedge adjustment. Following the restart, Hamlin dropped just outside of the top 10, but climbed his way back up before another round of green flag pit stops cycled through around lap 165. The third caution flag waved on lap 204 and Hamlin reported that he was just a little free, but not bad. Wheeler called the Sport Clips Camry to pit road for four tires and fuel, and Hamlin rejoined the field in the fourth position.
Shortly after the restart, the caution flag waved again on lap 214. This time, Hamlin reported that he was hitting the splitter through turns 1 and 2, which was shoving him tight. Having just visited pit road, Wheeler told Hamlin to remain on track. The fifth caution arose on lap 249 and Hamlin told Wheeler that his Camry was snappy loose and making his line not work as well as it had been. Running in fifth, Hamlin came to pit road for four tires, fuel and a wedge adjustment. The No. 11 Sport Clips crew had a lightning-fast stop on pit road and put Hamlin at the front of the field for the restart. Hamlin led five laps before the next caution came out on lap 261. Wheeler took advantage of the yellow flag and brought Hamlin back to pit road for four new tires and fuel. Hamlin continued to fight a loose race car on the restart and fell back to second.
The yellow flag waved again on lap 280. Hamlin reported that his Camry was a little better, but he was still loose and really struggling in turn 2 due to hitting the splitter. After another impressive stop by the Sport Clips pit crew, Hamlin took the lead once again for the restart. Unfortunately, Hamlin dropped back to third after the green flag waved. Wheeler called Hamlin to pit road during the next two cautions on lap 316 and 326 for new tires, fuel and two rounds of adjustments to help Hamlin with short-run grip. Hamlin settled into sixth position before the final caution arose on lap 350. After another visit to pit road, Hamlin rejoined the field in fourth position.
Four hours, 501 miles and ten pit stops later, Hamlin crossed the finish line in fourth position. The Southern 500 marks Hamlin’s seventh consecutive top-10 finish.