Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Chastain and Hamlin Weigh-In on Epic Darlington Battle

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

What can be best described as another classic Xfinity Series duel at Darlington Raceway, both Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin put on an absolute barn burner.

In the closing laps of Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200, two aggressive drivers gave it their all. Neither were giving up an inch if it meant a win was on the horizon as both were hungry for redemption in “The Lady in Black.”

Hamlin haven’t won an Xfinity race since Darlington in 2017 as a result of him being disqualified from a win last year. Chastain has scored seven top-three results this year, but still looking for his first win since last July at Daytona and a potential win at Darlington would make up for one that got away back in 2018.

With the stage being set, Hamlin was on an absolute charge of conquering Chastain beginning with 14 laps to go. No matter how difficult Hamlin made things for Chastain, he wouldn’t be denied as he maintained his race lead until two laps to go.

That’s when the thrilling two-car battle became a three-way dance as Hamlin’s one-off NXS teammate Brandon Jones came from out of nowhere, eagerly ready to steal another win from the competition.

Jones’ vision became a reality after Hamlin peaked low on Chastain in Turn 1 and battled door-to-door until Hamlin’s No. 54 Sports Clips Haircuts Toyota Supra sent it and tried clearing Chastain’s No. 10 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet Camaro on the top groove of Turn 3.

Needless to say, the muscling maneuver by Hamlin landed him into the outside wall and Chastain began sliding and rammed into the back of him. The contact nearly snapped Chastain’s car out of control but managed to saved it.

Due to this, that’s all what Jones needed to get by both drivers en route to his third Xfinity Series win of the season.

When asked about the move that can be considered as a “Hail Mary,” Hamlin felt he could’ve cleared him and woe her Supra down just in time, but it wasn’t meant to be.

“(Ross) was running his line, and I was running my line. I thought we had a great race going there,” said Hamlin. “I saw an opportunity there to clear, but once I did, I just carried a little too much speed there going into three. Obviously, he got in the back of us and it allowed the 19 (Jones) to catch up to the both of us, with both of us battling like that. It was fun, it just didn’t work out.”

In the heat of the moment, a livid Chastain retaliated Hamlin on the final lap to get second. The contact led Hamlin riding the outside wall and dropped to fifth in the final results table.

Once things cooled down, there wasn’t any confrontations but rather reflections from both disappointed drivers who threw everything but the kitchen sink to snap their NXS droughts.

Chastain exited out of his car with a smile on his face and was proud of Kaulig Racing’s effort on speed increase and credited Tyler Green for his excellence in reporting Hamlin’s whereabouts.

“I probably hit the wall 20 times on that last run and never compromised leading. When you hit the fence, it’s going to slow you down, but they were all minimal mistakes,” said Chastain. “I put the car at a high risk spot to crash, but it was where I needed to put for victory. When all the cards were on the table, we went head-to-head with him and we challenged him for the win all the way to the white flag.”

Hamlin added he probably could’ve waited until the last lap to pull off the winning move, but with a good run that he had on the backstretch, there wasn’t another choice but to fight for the top spot.

“I tried to race him really clean, and do the best I could to give him the space that he had earned up front. So, I tried to get him loose here and there, but never tried to really run into him and get him up the track, but maybe, I should have waited another lap and tried to do that,” said Hamlin.

“I just had got such a good run off of (turn) two that I had the opportunity to go clear him, but I just couldn’t get the car slowed down enough.”

During the post-race video conference, Chastain described the ordeal as a mistake on his end and felt his crossover should’ve been more aggressive.

“I got tight initially into (turn) three when we hit and then got loose trying to turn underneath him. At that point, it was too late and should’ve done the crossover a couple of car lengths sooner and I didn’t,” said Chastain.

“That’s the biggest thing I’ll take away, but Denny was faster. We all knew it, but I was trying everything I could to put my car everywhere that he wanted his to be and not crash. We kind of didn’t almost crash and then we did.”

Now that the dust settled, Hamlin will now focus on his bid for that elusive Cup Series title while Chastain has locked up spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs via points. For now, the battle between the duo will no doubt be among the top storylines once the weekend concludes.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography ranging from Idaho athletics to auto racing with ambitions of having his work recognized.