Sunday, June 11, 2023

CUP: Surprising late-race mistake leaves Denny Hamlin’s fast car last in Sonoma

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Denny Hamlin picked up the 7th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway when his #11 Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota crashed after 92 of 110 laps.

The finish, which occurred in Hamlin’s 230th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup Series points-paying race since June 28, 2014 at Kentucky, 323 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 41st for the #11, the 184th for Toyota, and the 651st from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 59th for the #11, the 396th for Toyota, and the 1,337th from a crash.

Since 2014, Hamlin has scored 25 of his 49 career Cup Series wins, all in pursuit of an elusive first Cup Series Championship. Three of the last five seasons saw him make the Championship Four, a streak of four cut just short by Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon” in Martinsville. He’s also become one of the sport’s most outspoken drivers, thanks to his popular “Actions Detrimental” podcast on Dirty Mo Media. 

In that same span, Hamlin was the last-place finisher of two consecutive exhibition races. In the 2021 All-Star Race at Texas, the threat of a missing lugnut penalty forced him to pit coming to the checkered flag in a race where everyone finished under power. Then, in the NextGen car’s debut at the L.A. Coliseum, something broke in the front of his engine. But Kentucky in 2014 – NASCAR’s first field of less than 43 cars since November 2001 in New Hampshire – remained his most recent in a points race.

Cindric leads Burton, Lally, and Enfinger
in the final few spots.

In a sport radically changed over those nine years, Hamlin arrived at Sonoma, looking for his first win at the track. In 16 previous attempts, the closest he came was in 2016, where he bumped his way past Tony Stewart on the final lap, only to be knocked out of the way himself coming off Turn 11. After running 13th in opening practice on Saturday, Hamlin looked determined to claim his second win of the season. He ran fastest in Qualifying Group 1A, only to be edged by Michael McDowell in the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford. But Hamlin had the last laugh in Round 2, taking the pole with a lap of 92.178mph (77.719 seconds).

Starting 36th and last on Sunday was Harrison Burton, whose #21 DEX Imaging Ford was slowest in Qualifying Group 1A, completing the slowest lap of the session at 89.148mph (80.361 seconds). With no drivers sent to the rear for pre-race penalties, Burton rolled off alongside the #42 Sunseeker Resorts Chevrolet, which started to his inside in Turn 11. In place of Noah Gragson came Grant Enfinger, who the Legacy Motor Club brought on board after Gragson suffered concussion symptoms from his hard crash last week in Gateway. It would be Enfinger’s Cup debut, nearly 12 years after his only previous Cup attempt with Sinica Motorsports at Homestead in November 2011 – a signing Enfinger said he would rather forget.

When the green flag dropped, Burton pulled ahead of Enfinger coming to the starting line, putting the #42 back to last place by just over one carlength at the end of Lap 1. On Lap 3, Burton moved under the #15 Camping World Ford of Andy Lally, whose deal over Twitter with Camping World’s Marcus Lemonis secured him his first Sonoma start since 2011. Burton cleared Lally for 34th, and Enfinger began to reel in Lally over the next two laps. By Lap 13, as Enfinger continued to race Lally for position, both along with Burton were held up by Austin Cindric, whose #2 America’s Tire Ford struggled with acceleration off Turn 11.

With no stage cautions under NASCAR’s new road course rules, green-flag stops soon followed, shuffling the last place position several times. On Lap 16, Brad Keselowski was first to pit his #6 King’s Hawaiian Ford, dropping him to last by the 18th circuit. By then, he was running by himself, within earshot of a then-leading Denny Hamlin. As Keselowski’s tires fought for grip, at one point sliding into Turn 11, Ryan Blaney made a stop in his #12 Menards / Moen Ford, only to incur the day’s only speeding penalty. Already in last and now the first car to be lapped by Hamlin, Blaney lost further ground with the penalty as stops continued. Blaney remained last until teammate Cindric took over on Lap 27, followed by Lally on Lap 29. By then, Lally was right behind Enfinger, who was steering clear of faster traffic by running the high lane in Turn 11.
Hamlin's car in the garage after the wreck.

On Lap 33, race leaders Denny Hamlin and teammate Martin Truex, Jr. in the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota caught the trailing Lally and Enfinger, putting both one lap down and allowing Truex to get position on Hamlin, clearing him off Turn 4. Still under green, Lally dropped Enfinger to last around Lap 38, then Burton reassumed last place on Lap 46. Lally took it back on Lap 49, just moments before a loose wheel on pit road from Zane Smith’s #38 Wellcare Ford brought out the first caution of the afternoon. Smith incurred a tail-end penalty as a result, dropping his #38 to last on Lap 54 just before the restart. Smith soon passed the 34th-place Enfinger, who was still on the lead lap, and set after 35th-place Lally to take away the Lucky Dog. This was done on Lap 59.

On Lap 62, the last four cars were running by themselves with a carlength of open track between them, placing Lally’s last-place #15 between Cindric and Burton with Enfinger bringing up the rear. Enfinger soon lost so much ground to the other three that on Lap 65, when Austin Dillon spun his #3 Breztri Chevrolet off the nose of Ty Gibbs’ #54 Monster Energy Toyota, Dillon had stalled then refired the engine of his car in the time it took the #42 to catch him. The next time by, NASCAR declared both Gibbs and Dillon had met minimum speed. By then, all 36 cars were still running with Smith and Lally still the only two off the lead lap. When Lally completed his 69th lap, he broke the record for most laps completed by a last-place finisher of a Sonoma Cup race. The previous mark of 68 was set by Hideo Fukuyama in 2003.

Another round of green-flag stops lifted 34th-place Enfinger back onto the lead lap, though still within striking distance of the leaders. Four laps later, Lally was still in last along with the lapped Smith, and both were now showing two laps back of the field. All 36 cars were running, and as the laps ticked away, it appeared this would become the first Cup race at Sonoma where all 36 would finish.

With 19 laps to go, Denny Hamlin had yet to retake the lead from teammate Truex since Lap 34, but was still holding fast to a 10th-place showing. Coming to the finish line, the #11 slapped the outside wall, then spun into the inside barrier with the right-front and right-rear. Under only the second caution of the entire race, Hamlin limped around the track with the right-rear wheel pointed the wrong way, an indicator of a broken toe link. He made it back to the very first pit stall, where the crew patched together a repair on the right-rear and sent him back out. “I think something else is broke,” said the driver. “We were out of time,” explained the team, which called him back in. “Thanks for the effort.”

Hamlin returned to the pits and this time entered the garage at Turn 11, parking in Garage Stall 7. Per NASCAR protocol, Hamlin was then transported by cart to the infield care center, after which he explained what happened. “I was really close behind the 24 (Byron), and I couldn’t really see where I was going. And then I went to turn left to try and peek underneath of him, and the wall was there.”

Hamlin took last under the ensuing caution, lifting Lally to 35th and Smith to 34th by the finish. Completing the Bottom Five were two other drivers who both lost a lap in the race’s final moments. In 33rd was outside-polesitter Tyler Reddick, whose #45 The Beast Unleashed Toyota cut down a tire, then was docked for short-cutting the course at Turn 12 to make it back to pit road. Completing the group was Erik Jones, whose #43 Allegiant Chevrolet spun and stalled at Turn 3a while running 23rd. Jones lost a lap, but continued on to finish under power. Just outside the Bottom Five came Ryan Blaney, who was some distance behind the rest of the field.

*Hamlin is the second polesitter to finish last in the same race, joining Joey Logano in Las Vegas on March 5th. 
*Hamlin is the first polesitter to finish last in a Cup race at Sonoma. The only driver who came closest was Jerry Nadeau, the outside-polesitter in 1998, who ran off-course on Lap 1 and crashed 12 laps later in his #13 First Plus Financial Ford.
*This marked the first time that a stage winner finished last in a Cup race, and the first to lead any laps in a Cup race – since October 16, 2022, when Bubba Wallace’s #45 McDonald’s Toyota bounced off the wall and into Kyle Larson last fall in Las Vegas.

36) #11-Denny Hamlin / 92 laps / crash / led 33 laps / won stage 1
35) #15-Andy Lally / 109 laps / running
34) #38-Zane Smith / 109 laps / running
33) #45-Tyler Reddick / 109 laps / running
32) #43-Erik Jones / 109 laps / running

1st) Spire Motorsports (4)
2nd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Live Fast Motorsports, Penske Racing, Rick Ware Racing (2)
3rd) Kaulig Racing, Richard Childress Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Ford (4)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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