TALLADEGA, Ala. — Staying back helped Denny Hamlin finally return to the front.
One of the most successful drivers during the 2020 regular season, Hamlin put himself in position to win for the first time in this year's NASCAR Cup Series playoffs by avoiding the battles for the lead Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway. Ultimately, it kept him out of the carnage of the messiest and longest race in the history of a track with a reputation for frequent and spectacular crashes.
Hamlin's sweeping three-wide pass in triple overtime brought an end to the sloppiest race of the season. He surged to the win coming out of the final turn, the 58th lead change of a race that went nearly 32 miles, or 12 laps, longer than scheduled.
Talladega was pocked with 13 cautions, two more than the record, and nearly every title contender had some sort of damage. Only six of the 12 drivers currently in the playoff field made it to the finish.
Hamlin insisted lagging the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota at the back of the field all day, waiting to pounce at the end, was his strategy all along. Either that, or he was simply the last driver standing when given the chance to snap a skid that started with the playoffs one month ago.
"I hate to say it, but you have to play the game. You have to get to the next round," said Hamlin, who opened the season by winning the Daytona 500 and added five more victories ahead of the playoffs, second only to Kevin Harvick's seven during the regular season. "To win the championship, you have to win the last race, and you have to get to the last race. For us, we played the strategy to play the numbers to make sure we got locked in."
Fitting for this particular wreck-fest was that Hamlin's win needed an official review. He had gone below the yellow out-of-bounds line during the third overtime, but NASCAR ruled the move was legal.
"They were crashing in front of us," Hamlin said with a shrug. "Obviously, I got forced down there."
The crowd of 15,000 — with the track's capacity reduced because of the coronavirus, that was the maximum — booed Hamlin as he was declared the winner. He dismissed any notion of a controversy over the yellow line rule, noting it had been called by NASCAR the same way all afternoon.
The 39-year-old Hamlin celebrated his 44th Cup Series victory, tying him with childhood hero Bill Elliott on the career list. Erik Jones was second in the JGR No. 20 Toyota, with Ty Dillon, William Byron and Chase Elliott next in Chevrolets and sixth-place Ryan Newman the highest-finishing Ford driver.
The race went more than four hours, so long that its conclusion was moved from NBC to NBC Sports Network because local news and then NFL football needed the big network.
The brutality of the day was punctuated by Kyle Busch, one of Hamlin's JGR teammates, who was at last given a merciful exit when he was collected in a collision during the second overtime.
The reigning Cup Series champion is still winless this season and on the verge of playoff elimination. He was involved in a dizzying amount of contact at Talladega, including a 13-car wreck in which older brother Kurt — coming off a hometown win last weekend in Las Vegas to open the second round of the playoffs — went airborne over Cole Custer. That brought out the first of two red-flag stoppages.
Although Kurt's spot as one of the eight drivers in the next three-race round — after this coming weekend's run on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway — is secure, he was unable to finish at Talladega.
"You're on top one week with a win and everything's fantastic," Busch said. "And then this week we're here at Talladega and next thing you know, I'm going for one of the wildest rides I've ever been in."
An hour after the finish, NASCAR rescinded a penalty on Elliott, which gave him the highest finish of the playoff drivers behind Hamlin. Austin Dillon was next in that regard at 12th.
Now the bottom four drivers in the playoff standings are Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Dillon. After a frustrating second-place finish to Harvick at Bristol Motor Speedway in the final race of the first round, Kyle Busch had apathetically predicted he wouldn't make it through this round.
Almirola was wrecked while leading near the end of the first stage, and Bowyer triggered the 13-car crash in which Kurt Busch went airborne. The wall was damaged, which brought out the first red flag for repairs.
The second red flag stopped the second overtime right before Elliott took the lead. At almost any other track, Elliott would have taken the checkered flag before that — but Talladega's finish line is unusually close to the first turn, and Elliott had not made it there before a crash behind him. He then had to pit from the lead for fuel because he didn't have enough gas for the additional and unplanned miles.
Meanwhile, blue-collar fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto stood devastated on pit road after what appeared to be a second-place finish for the second Sunday in a row.
That was then yanked away as the Wood Brothers Racing driver was dropped to 21st after NASCAR penalized him for forcing Hendrick Motorsports' Byron below the line. DiBenedetto was initially denied his first career victory a year ago by Hamlin the same week DiBenedetto learned he was out of a job.
This defeat came as DiBenedetto, still looking for his breakthrough, waits and wonders if his contract will be extended or if he'll be moved aside for Austin Cindric after just one season with WBR.
"I feel like this is the same story a lot of times, just heartbreak," he said. "My wife and I have had a stressful week again just with the uncertainty. I mean, that was pure desperation, but that's how I drive every race."