At the beginning of the day on Sunday, Denny Hamlin hadn't even had so much as a Top 10 finish in 2022, let alone contended for the win at any point. But thanks to a long green flag run and just the right pit strategy, Hamlin took six races' worth of early season frustration and completely erased them at his home track.
Playing his tire strategy just right over a long green flag run, Denny Hamlin was able to run down and pass William Byron for the lead with five laps to go, then held Kevin Harvick off on the final lap to win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond. The win is Hamlin's first of the season, the 47th of his career, and marks the first win by a driver older than the age of 30 since last fall at Las Vegas -- a race that Hamlin won.
Toyota Owners 400 unofficial results
- #11 - Denny Hamlin
- #4 - Kevin Harvick
- #24 - William Byron
- #19 - Martin Truex Jr.
- #5 - Kyle Larson
- #20 - Christopher Bell
- #12 - Ryan Blaney
- #48 - Alex Bowman
- #18 - Kyle Busch
- #3 - Austin Dillon
Any adjectives pertaining to complete and utter misery would have described Hamlin's start to 2022 perfectly. In six races entering Richmond, Hamlin had posted three DNFs and didn't have a single finish better than 13th. But by coming to pit road for tires late in the race, Hamlin was able to make up massive amounts of track time and run down both Byron and Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps to take the win.
"Great strategy there. Just drove as hard as I could," Hamlin told Fox Sports. "... We needed a data point. We needed something, a good run, to kind of balance ourselves on other tracks. Obviously, I think we got it here."
Here's a look at some of the takeaways from Richmond and Denny Hamlin's first win of the season.
'Virginia is for Strategy'
After the first six races of 2022 saw a rash of cautions, the attrition rate was low in Richmond on Sunday and the yellow flag flew a season-low five times. In turn, and combined with high tire wear on Richmond's surface, this gave way to multiple alternate strategy plays that shook up the running order throughout the day during a season-high four cycles of green flag pit stops.
Beginning in Stage 2, teams began to choose between trying to make it to the end of long runs on two pit stops or doing so with just one stop, effectively a choice between fresh tires and track position. As the race played out, William Byron was eventually able to make his way to the front of the field by staying out under caution, taking the lead and holding it even as he made laps on tires with more than 70 laps on them by the finish.
In the end, fresh rubber won the day as Hamlin and Harvick were able to make up seconds to multiple tenths seconds up on Byron each lap, whose strategy ended up netting him a third-place finish.
Old guys rule again
Much had been made to start the 2022 season of a generational shift in NASCAR, as a record 12-straight Cup races had been won by a driver under the age of 30 with four of those being first-time winners. But in Richmond, the idea of the young displacing the old proved greatly overstated.
313 of 400 laps ended up being led by young drivers, as Ryan Blaney led a race-high 128 laps early on before giving way to Byron (122) and Christopher Bell (63). However, the class of the field independent of strategy was arguably Martin Truex Jr., who led 80 laps and looked to have the best chance of any of the 40-somethings before 41-year old Hamlin and 46-year old Harvick came on late.
On the final lap, it looked as though Harvick would have a shot at getting past Hamlin and ending his winless streak as the two leaders caught lapped traffic. But Hamlin was able to catch and pass traffic just right, leaving Harvick to settle for runner-up.
"I wanted to be close enough with the white (flag) to just take a swipe at him, but the lapped cars there kind of got in the way and I lost a little bit of ground," Harvick told Fox Sports. "Still a great day of us, and hopefully a little momentum in a positive direction."
Tale of the tape
Entering Sunday, many eyes had been on the pit crews of Joe Gibbs Racing as they introduced a completely new choreography for pit stops, bringing all tire changers around the front of their cars instead of sending a pair around the front and back. But late in the race, a somewhat puzzling situation played out thanks to the actions of Kyle Busch's pit crew.
During a pitstop, Busch's team had meant to place a piece of tape over the brake duct opening on the front of his car, but inadvertently placed it on the grille opening -- Something that is now illegal following the introduction of the Next Gen car. However, NASCAR officials did not pick up on the infraction until about 200 laps after the fact: According to Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports, Busch's crew chief Ben Beshore had figured the tape would fly off at some point, and the delay in penalizing Busch had been attributable to NASCAR reviewing whether the object on Busch's grille was debris or if it had been placed on there during a pit stop.
Despite the ensuing penalty, Busch recovered to finish ninth.
From the finishing order
- With his 47th career victory, Denny Hamlin now moves out of a tie with NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker to take sole possession of 17th on the sport's all-time wins list. The next drivers Hamlin has to catch on the all-time wins list are Herb Thomas (48), Tony Stewart (49), and then Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson (50).
- Kevin Harvick's second-place finish marked his fourth runner-up finish since his last victory at Bristol in the fall of 2020. Harvick's winless streak has now been extended to a 50-race dry spell.
- Christopher Bell set a personal milestone in his young Cup career, as his 63-laps led were nearly double his previous career-high of laps led in a single Cup race (32). Bell's sixth-place finish earned him his second top 10 in a row.
- Sunday marked the 10th time in Ryan Blaney's career that he has led 100 or more laps in a Cup race. Unfortunately, he has yet to win a single one of those races -- Blaney would fade after leading the opening 128 laps and finished seventh.
- A terrible west coast swing has overshadowed what has become a nice first seven races of the year for Brad Keselowski. Though he hasn't finished in the top 10 since the Daytona 500, Keselowski's 13th-place finish was his third-straight top 15 and fourth overall.
- Harrison Burton was the highest finishing rookie in 18th, marking the first time in his Cup career that he's strung together consecutive top 20 finishes.
Next weekend marks the first Saturday night race of the 2022 season, as the Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 on April 9.