Denny Hamlin wins on an extended day at Homestead

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – Denny Hamlin found the magic again at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin took the lead for the last time with 30 laps remaining, holding back Chase Elliott for his third victory in the NASCAR Cup Series at Homestead.

Former drivers Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle are the other three-time winners. Hamlin is now at the club after fighting Elliott for most of the night.

“This one was very special,” said Hamlin.

Hamlin drove to his third win of the season and 40th overall. He opened the season with a Daytona 500 win and won at Darlington last month. And when the night was over, Hamlin – who wears the Michael Jordan “Jumpman” logo on his racing suit – made no secret of the fact that he drives with a little more energy these days.

“I am motivated. I’m more motivated than ever, ”said Hamlin.

He led 137 of 267 laps of the 1 1/2 mile in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 Toyota, finishing 0.895 ahead of Elliott.

“I just need to get through the lap better,” said Elliott.

Ryan Blaney finished third in a race that was often delayed by rain and lightning. Tyler Reddick finished fourth.

“I just had to perform a bit better,” said Reddick. “It was difficult. We were only a little wrong in the last two races.”

Fittingly, a very long day was the culmination of a very long week for NASCAR – three Cup Series races in eight days, all of which left the drivers in hot and steamy weather conditions that exhausted many of them, all about the ongoing national outcry about the struggle for racial equality.

Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in the Cup series, has become the sport’s most prominent activist after successfully calling on NASCAR last week to ban Confederate flags at its events; the series was quick to do just that, to get mostly rave reviews. So while fans – 1,000 of them, mostly invited military personnel who could each bring a guest – were at a NASCAR race for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, none of the forbidden flags were in sight.

Most of those fans were gone by the time Hamlin flew the checkered flag at 10:46 p.m., ending marathon day.

The race was over. That was the day. In the end.

“I knew if I was just patient, running the pace I wanted and the pace I was comfortable with, we’d be hard to beat in the long run,” said Hamlin.

Wallace finished 13th. Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion, who the tunnel leading to the track was named after him over the weekend and will retire as a full-time driver after this season, finished 16th.

Hamlin won the first two stages and this season bucked a trend where riders who do not end up with victory.

Elliott swept the first two legs in Las Vegas before finishing 26th, Clint Bowyer made it before finishing 22nd in Darlington, Alex Bowman won the first two legs in Charlotte but finished 19th, and Elliott made it again and finished 22nd in Bristol.

The last rider to win the first two stages and ultimately win the race was Martin Truex Jr. in Martinsville on October 27th. Until now, that is.

“I’ll take every win I can,” said Hamlin. “Let’s just keep piling them up.”

The weather played with the race all day.

A light shower of rain only on turns 3 and 4 emerged the moment the drivers started the engines to get things going. The first lightning bolts of the day followed and the delay meant that the race started 55 minutes later than planned.

Drivers were coming through three laps – not even five miles – when lightning bolts were spotted near the track and a warning came out leading to a red flag stop that would last 2 hours and 8 minutes. And after about 25 more laps, when it finally started again, lightning struck again and caused another interruption of almost 39 minutes.

“It was a little different,” said Blaney. “Of course we drove later than we thought, but on the other hand the race that we are used to down here usually ends a little later. … Getting in and out was difficult, the part stinks, but safety is important. “

If you count the delay before the race, that was 3 hours and 42 minutes of sitting around with weather-related breaks on a day when most of the track was consistently dry. It was 8:15 p.m. when the green flag fell again and the drivers, who had only driven 33 laps by then, started around the Homestead surface the last 234 times.

Austin Dillon had a day he will never forget, even though his seventh place didn’t come close to being the most significant development. Dillon and wife Whitney became parents early Sunday, announcing the birth of a boy named Ace.

“The hardest thing I ever had to do was say goodbye to the race today,” Dillon wrote in the Instagram post announcing the birth. “Hopefully we’ll bring a trophy back to Ace on the first day we welcomed him to this world!”

Instead, the trophy went to Hamlin, who has now won this season with grandstands full of fans (Daytona), no fans (the second race in Darlington) and a few fans (Homestead).

“It’s a number I’ve been looking at for a few years and at one point I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” Hamlin said of reaching the 40-victory milestone. “Since then I’ve adjusted my goals. … I think we are not at the top of the game with our team yet. “

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