Denny Hamlin put himself in position to finally win in the playoffs by hanging at the back to avoid the carnage of the messiest and longest race in Talladega Superspeedway history.
His sweeping three-wide pass in triple overtime Sunday brought an end to the sloppiest race of the season. The Daytona 500 winner surged to the win coming out of the final turn — it was the 58th lead change of a race that went nearly 32 miles, or 12 laps, longer than scheduled.
Talladega was pocked with 13 cautions, two more than the record, and nearly every title contender had some sort of damage. Only six of the 12 made it to the finish.
Hamlin insisted lagging the No. 11 Toyota at the back of the field all day, waiting to pounce at the end, was his strategy all along. Either that, or he was simply the last driver standing when given the chance to snap a skid that started with the playoffs one month ago.
Fitting for this particular wreck-fest was that Hamlin’s win needed official review. He had gone below the yellow out-of-bounds line during the third overtime, but NASCAR ruled the move was legal.
The brutality of the day was punctuated by Kyle Busch, who was at last given a merciful exit when he was collected in an accident during the second overtime.
The reigning Cup champion is still winless this season and on the verge of playoff elimination. He was involved in a dizzying number of incidents at Talladega, including a 13-car accident in which older brother, Kurt, went airborne over Cole Custer. That accident brought out the first of two red-flag stoppages.
Hamlin raced to his 44th Cup victory, tying him with childhood hero Bill Elliott on the career list. He also earned the automatic berth into the next round of the playoffs, joining Kurt Busch, winner last week at home track Las Vegas but one of six playoff drivers that failed to reach the finish at Talladega.
An hour after the finish, NASCAR rescinded a penalty on Chase Elliott, which moved him up to fifth in the final running order — the highest of the playoff drivers behind Hamlin. Austin Dillon was the next highest-finishing playoff driver at 12th.
Four of 12 drivers will be eliminated next week at The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The bottom four in the standings are Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Dillon.