RICHMOND, Va. — Denny Hamlin hoped the NASCAR Cup Series' visit to the track where he watched races as a youngster would help kick-start the veteran driver's season after it started in an uncharacteristic fashion — poorly.
Thanks to some crafty tire strategy that his team timed right, Hamlin got it done.
He ran down William Byron with five laps to go Sunday and ended the slowest start to a season in his career with a victory in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. It was also the first Cup Series win this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Toyota finally joined Chevrolet and Ford in making it to victory lane with the first-year Next Gen car.
Hamlin, who has been among the final four contenders for the season championship the past three years, started the day at Richmond 22nd in the point standings. He hadn't won since earning his second victory of 2021 in late September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"You just have a tough season," Hamlin said, "and if things aren't going well and it seems like the breaks aren't going your way, and then the law of averages say things are going to kind of work out, and we get our performance better and today's the day where it all matched up."
In a race that featured four sets of green-flag pit stops and a whole lot of tire strategy, Hamlin closed a huge gap between Byron in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet and JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., passing Truex on the outside and Byron shortly thereafter. He then held off a challenge from Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick, a three-time winner at Richmond.
"Yeah, just great strategy there. Just drove as hard as I could," Hamlin said after climbing from his car in his first top-10 finish this year. "There was no doubt in my mind, maybe just a little, but they got this car right there towards the end. Wow, unbelievable."
The 47th victory of Hamlin's Cup Series career was his first at his hometown track since 2016, and it gave the circuit seven different winners in as many races to start the season. However, was the 41-year-old's triumph stopped a streak of 12 consecutive Cup Series race winners younger than 30.
Harvick was second in a Ford, followed by Byron, Truex and Hendrick Motorsports' Kyle Larson, the reigning series champion.
"Had a shot there at the end," Harvick said. "I wanted to be close enough with the white to just take a swipe at him. Yeah, the lapped cars there kind of got in the way and I lost a little bit of ground."
Hamlin got himself into contention during the second stage, when he and teammate Christopher Bell opted to stay on the track while most of the rest of the field pitted for tires. The move initially gave the risk takers a sizable lead, but it began evaporating quickly.
Hamlin made it pay off in the final stage, going from 15th to seventh over just a few laps after a restart using the extra set of tires he had over the field.
Byron and Truex aimed to make a similar strategy work at the end, trying to race almost 90 laps on the same tires while Hamlin and Harvick and most others pitted with around 50 laps to go. They almost pulled it off.
"At the end I think we just tried to gamble ... on beating the 24," Truex said. "He ended up trying to do our strategy, which we both screwed up."
Truex was seeking his fourth victory in the past six Cup Series races at the .75-mile, D-shaped oval, but instead Hamlin gave the current JGR stable 13 wins at the track.
Byron said he thought his team told him the only driver he had to worry about racing at the end was Truex.
"I'm like, 'OK. I got him,'" said Byron, who added he then figured out Hamlin and Harvick "were on a totally different planet. ... There wasn't anything I could do about them."
JGR's Kyle Busch was black flagged with about 50 laps to go when NASCAR noticed a piece of tape on his car's grille. At the time, his three teammates were running in the top 10 and he was closing in on joining them. Busch finished ninth, with teammate Bell sixth, Team Penske's Ryan Blaney seventh and Hendrick's Alex Bowman eighth.
Blaney started on the pole position for the third straight race and led the entire 70-lap first stage and the first 128 laps in all. He has just two top-10 finishes at Richmond, but they have come in his past two starts at the short track.
"I wanted to run better, but I can't complain about it too much," Blaney said. "We just have to find a little bit more speed, but it was nice that we kind of put together some decent notes and have an OK run at Richmond."
All three of NASCAR's top series will be in Virginia again next weekend for a Truck-Xfinity-Cup tripleheader at Martinsville Speedway.