|Hamlin (left) and Shepherd (right) in the last row at the start.|
PHOTO: Brock Beard
The finish came in Hamlin’s 161st series start. In the XFINITY Series rankings, it was the 9th disqualification, the 10th for the #18, and the 129th for Toyota. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 32nd disqualification, the 45th for the #18, and the 320th for Toyota.
Hamlin entered Saturday’s race riding high off a come-from-behind victory in the most recent Cup Series race at Bristol. Hamlin won the pole, recovered from a series of miscues, and drove around technical partner Matt DiBenedetto with just 12 laps to go, denying DiBenedetto his first career victory. The win was Hamlin’s fourth of the 2019 season, tying him with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. for the most this season. He was now ranked second in the Playoff standings between Busch and Truex, positioning both he and his team toward a championship run.
Hamlin also ran double-duty at Darlington, making his 12th start in the XFINITY race there and his fifth in a row. The track had long been one of the driver’s best, earning five victories and finishing no worse than 8th in his first-ever run there in 2004. Victories at “The Lady In Black” accounted for nearly a third of Hamlin’s seventeen XFINITY Series wins, including two of his last four. The Saturday race would also mark his first series start of the season, curiously, after DiBenedetto drove Joe Gibbs Racing #18 Toyota during the Cup off-weekend at Road America.
Despite his success at the track and a 1990s “throwback scheme” honoring the Junior Johnson-prepared Fords of his childhood hero Bill Elliott, Hamlin’s weekend got off to a rough start. He struck the outside wall in opening practice, and though the damage to the right-rear didn’t appear too severe, the crew was quick to prepare the backup. The primary was parked across from the team’s garage stall late Friday with the car cover over it. Still, he managed to earn the second-fastest speed in opening practice, just 0.041 second off the best lap put up by Cole Custer, whose #00 Production Alliance Group Ford honored Roy “Buckshot” Jones. The backup ran 6th-fastest in Happy Hour, but qualified 37th with a conservative lap of 125.763mph (39.102 seconds).
Starting 38th with the slowest lap overall was Morgan Shepherd, who was struggling with bronchitis all weekend. The illness put a damper on a particularly unique “throwback” honoring Shepherd’s first Cup Series win at Martinsville in 1981. In place of his black-and-gold #89 Visone RV Chevrolet, Shepherd debuted a red-white-and-blue machine with glimmering red rims. As Shepherd prepared to race, the team also proudly displayed a collage of David Chobat pictures showing their driver in victory lane nearly four decades ago. Qualifying, however, proved a struggle, as they turned a lap of just 116.869mph (42.078 seconds), putting him on the outside of Hamlin in the last row. He was secured a spot thanks to H2 Motorsports, who earlier in the week withdrew their Hut Stricklin throwback on the #28 Toyota after Shane Lee was released.
When the field rolled off pit road on Saturday, Shepherd lined up next to Mike Harmon, whose own throwback scheme to his late model days had to be altered after the reflective chrome stripes on the sides of his #74 Tribute to Service Chevrolet interfered with NASCAR’s laser inspection process. With the stripes removed, Harmon pulled up next to the #89 while the trailing cars of B.J. McLeod, Vinnie Miller, Matt Mills, and Hamlin soon followed to reassume their spots in line. By the time the field reached the backstretch for the second pace lap, Hamlin had already moved up a few spots. He now started next to 30th-place qualifier J.J. Yeley in RSS Racing’s #38 Chevrolet with Miller, Mills, and Shepherd trailing them. On the third and final pace lap, Hamlin moved up again on the inside lane with McLeod falling behind him to join Mills, then Harmon to the inside of Miller, followed by Tommy Joe Martins in Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Toyota, Yeley, Joe Nemechek in the Mike Harmon / Rick Ware #17 Chevrolet, and Shepherd.
On the first lap, Shepherd and Nemechek ran side by side down the backstretch with Shepherd remaining in the high lane. The next time by, Nemechek widened the advantage over Shepherd and began to battle Harmon for position. On Lap 3, Harmon slipped to 37th and into Shepherd’s clutches. That changed on Lap 4, when Harmon slowed in Turns 1 and 2, then pulled to the inside down the backstretch, taking over last as Shepherd set his sights on Nemechek. Harmon became the first to lose a lap as the leaders streaked by in Turns 3 and 4, then spent an extended time on pit road for problems with the radio. The next time by on Lap 5, Shepherd’s car slowed with the engine sounding sour, and he pulled down pit road. The crew later confirmed that this first stop was for fluids as the driver fought to keep going. Shepherd would ultimately make three stops as the car overheated, joining Harmon on pit road for an extended period of time. Neither car pulled into the garage area. Shepherd returned to the track during the first caution for John Hunter Nemechek’s spin on Lap 13, and Harmon returned sometime after, giving Harmon the advantage for last. John Hunter also continued, running one lap down after his incident in 36th. Yeley then lost laps as well, bumping the #23 up to 35th.
While Harmon continued on in last place, the battle seemed to end on Lap 36, when Shepherd became the first to pull into the garage area on the backstretch. He pulled to the end of the garage area and climbed out, where his wife and team were waiting. Shepherd politely declined an interview as he was handed a sports drink, saying that he was having difficulty speaking. The team looked over the car, then prepared to load it up. On Lap 92, the crew’s equipment was loaded, and two crew members drove the team’s hauler out of the track.
From there, the garage area filled gradually. Harmon remained out on the speedway and clawed his way to a 33rd-place finish, leaving those behind him in the Bottom Five. J.J. Yeley pulled out shortly after Shepherd with axle issues, stopping behind the RSS Racing hauler. Tommy Joe Martins stopped near the entrance to the garage, where all three of the MBM team’s haulers were parked. Joe Nemechek parked in the spot vacated by Shepherd and talked with the crew before he helped prepare the car for loading. Rounding out the group was Brandon Brown, whose #86 Coastal Carolina Chevrolet (a throwback to Terry Labonte’s 1993 car for Billy Hagan) suffered serious damage in a Lap 54 incident with Gray Gaulding and Noah Gragson. Brown ran at a reduced pace for another thirty laps before he pulled into the garage with heavy right-rear damage.
Hamlin, meanwhile, sprinted through the field early with a number of two and three-wide passes to the inside. He finally made it to the lead on Lap 121, and was in position to win when the final caution came out for Josh Williams’ spin in Turn 4 that also collected Landon Cassill, who was on the verge of a top-ten finish. Hamlin maintained first place on the restart, but had to fight off a spirited charge from Cole Custer. Custer nearly completed the pass in the final corners before Hamlin used the lapped machine of Vinnie Miller as a pick, taking the win. It was to be his sixth Darlington win in the XFINITY Series – exactly a fifty percent success rate.
Then Hamlin’s car failed post-qualifying technical inspection.
Just like teammate Christopher Bell’s issue at Chicagoland, the #18 was found to be too low in the left-front and too high in the right-rear. The result relegated Hamlin to last, bumping Shepherd out of the spot and lifting Brown out of the Bottom Five.
Want to see video of the last-place battle playing out (before the disqualification)? Check out this video I took from the XFINITY Series garage!
*Hamlin is the first driver to ever be classified last by disqualification in a Cup, XFINITY, or Truck Series points-paying race at Darlington, and comes during the Southern 500’s seventieth anniversary.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #18 in an XFINITY Series race since September 7, 2007, when Kevin Conway’s run in the Z-Line Designs / Circuit City Chevrolet ended in a crash after 36 laps of the Emerson Radio 250 at Richmond.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #18-Denny Hamlin / 147 laps / disqualified / led 27 laps
37) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 27 laps / electrical
36) #38-J.J. Yeley / 34 laps / axle
35) #13-Tommy Joe Martins / 61 laps / transmission
34) #17-Joe Nemechek / 72 laps / brakes
2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Motorsports Business Management, RSS Racing (6)
2nd) Joe Gibbs Racing (3)
3rd) DGM Racing, Kaulig Racing (2)
4th) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Brandonbilt Motorsports, JD Motorsports, Jimmy Means Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)
2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (15)
2nd) Toyota (9)
2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP