Midway through the Hollywood Casino 400, Denny Hamlin punched his ticket to the next round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoffs based on points.
He didn’t stop there.
Hamlin, considered by many the best active driver not to have won a Cup championship, held off hard-charging Chase Elliott by .128 seconds in green-white-checker double overtime finish and won his fifth race of the season on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
Hamlin, 38, advanced to the Round of 8 along with the previous two weeks’ winners, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney, along with five others who qualified by points: Elliott, reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, and Hamlin’s two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Clint Bowyer of Emporia was eliminated from the next round of three races along with Alex Bowman, William Byron and 2012 Cup champion and two-time Kansas winner Brad Keselowski.
Hamlin was a half-car length from the white flag that would have frozen the field and given him the win with one lap left to go when a collision on the backstretch between Keselowski and Daniel Suarez collected Logano and produced the second overtime restart.
The restart created a two-lap race between Elliott and Keselowski for the final playoff spot and Elliott and Hamlin for the win. Kyle Busch was right behind and pushed Hamlin and finished third.
“That car was awesome to dominate that whole second half of the race,” Hamlin said of the No. 11 Toyota. “I have to thank everyone who pushed me on the restarts, Kyle, at the end. Good to see him make it by points.”
Elliott, who began the day 22 points behind the cut line, advanced to final eight with his second-place finish and eliminated Keselowski.
“The restarts saved us,” said Elliott, the defending race winner. “If it had gone green, I don’t know that I was going to finish second. So just a lot of good fortune there to have cautions when we did, to make the most of those restarts.“
Gibbs’ three playoff drivers will begin the Round of 8 occupying the 1-2-3 positions in the standings — Busch with a 4-point lead over Truex and 9-point lead over Hamlin. In fact Gibbs drivers have teamed to win 16 of the first 32 Cup races this season, two shy of the modern-era record 18 set by Hendrick Motorsports in 2007.
Hamlin opened the season by winning the Daytona 500, and just as in that race, the team had the organization’s late president, J.D. Gibbs, in mind Sunday.
“I get emotional when I see (No. 11) car because it has J.D.’s name over the door on it,” Joe Gibbs said of his son, who died last January of a neurological disease at age 49. “Denny means so much to us and our family. I called Melissa, J.D.’s wife, and the boys … it’s a big deal for us emotionally.”
Hamlin, who won the spring race at Kansas Speedway in 2012, now has 36 career victories, and his team owner and new crew chief, Chris Gabehart, believes this is the year Hamlin can join Busch (2015) and Truex (2017) as Cup champions.
“Chris and Denny have developed a relationship… they fight on every single lap,” Gibbs said, smiling.
Gabehart, who moved up from Gibbs’ Xfinity teams this season, said the “hard part” of the playoffs is over because Martinsville, Va., Texas and Phoenix — the Round of 8’s three tracks that lead to the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead — “is a real sweet spot for Denny.”
“Cannot wait to get to Martinsville,” Hamlin said of his home track, where he has won five times. “It’s step by step, week by week. I’m not getting too far ahead of ourselves. We concentrate each week as if it’s the most important one.
“This win here kind of shows that.”