By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
The NASCAR Next Gen car is still resilient with the safety updates that officials have introduced over the course of the year. Denny Hamlin found out just out robust the NASCAR Cup Series car still is after a top-five finish in Sunday’s Autotrader Echo Park 400.
Well before Kyle Larson and Bubba Wallace showed their speed in the 400-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, Hamlin’s race was compromised. During a round of pit stops in Stage 2, the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry left its’ pit box. At the same time, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Ty Gibbs had already received his pit service and was in the center of pit road.
The Toyota Racing drivers collided, damaging the passenger side door of Hamlin’s car, and the steering on Gibbs’ car. Despite the damage, the Chesterfield, VA native didn’t return to pit road. Instead, he plowed forward. Though the car was now much tighter, he followed Larson through the field. Hamlin briefly took second before Erik Jones took the spot in the closing laps of the second Stage.
“It slowed our car down quite a bit,” Hamlin explained. “The good news is that it didn’t hit a tire, but it just caved in the right side so much that made it really slow down the straightaway and then tighten the car up quite a bit. It still is the top-three car, but certainly not as fast as the No. 5 once we got that damage.”
Hamlin’s damaged Cup car hovered inside the top-three throughout the final Stage. With track position king, strategy calls proved to be the difference maker. Under a late-race caution, the 42-year-old pitted from third. He rejoined the track in 15th.
While tire wear was at a minimum, there was a marked difference between tires with multiple heat cycles and Hamlin’s fresh tires. He tore through the competition, reaching fifth by the time the checkered flag waved. Between the damage to his car and the strategy call, Hamlin was willing to take the top-five finish.
“I mean, (pitting for tires) certainly didn’t work,” Hamlin said. “I mean it wasn’t a positive, but 20 some laps to go, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many cars stay out on old tires. Track position was such a huge factor here at Texas, very little drop off in the tire. We were just running whoever you’re behind and so we gave up the track position when I knew we came out 15th, I knew we were going to be in trouble, but fifth, we’ll just take it.
“We obviously trying to make a call to win, and it didn’t work out. You make a call, but you don’t know what others are going to do and your call is either right or wrong based off of how many people do A or B.”
The fifth-place finish was Hamlin’s 12th top-five of the 2023 season. It was the 220th of his Cup Series career.
The top-five finish moved the veteran driver up to second on the NASCAR Playoff grid. Thanks in part to finishing the first two Stages in ninth and third, Hamlin has a 35-point cushion over the cutline, currently held by Larson.
Next for the winningest driver currently without a Cup Series championship is the YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. In 35 starts at the 2.66-mile track Hamlin has two victories. He also has three victories at the other traditional drafting track, Daytona Int’l Speedway, all in the Daytona 500.
The YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, October 1 on NBC. The race will also be broadcast on the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.