By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
A pit road speeding penalty and an ill-timed caution could not keep Denny Hamlin from a top-10 finish in the Auto Club 400.
Hamlin used the wave-around under the final caution to his advantage. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Driver restarted on the lead lap, and inside the top-10. Hamlin surged forward in the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry during the final 30 laps. He held off charges from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr., as well as Ricky Stenhouse to cross the line in seventh at Auto Club Speedway.
“It definitely hurts with 30 laps to go or so,” Hamlin said. “The speeding penalty got us to the back of the pack. We were fast, but once we got in the back of the pack, we just couldn’t get there. We hung with Kyle for the first 20 laps getting through the pack, until we got to seventh or eighth. Then we lost the handling.”
While under caution on lap 123, both Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch were penalized for speeding on pit road. The duo was forced to drop to the end of the longest line prior to the ensuing restart.
Like Busch, Hamlin made quick work of his competition. In a mirror image of each other, both drivers broke back into the top-10 in 15 laps. The duo became separated due to a caution for debris from Bubba Wallace’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 with 32 laps to go.
“We were fast,” Hamlin admitted. “We were a little bit off of the No. 18 (Kyle Busch). I was as good or better than everyone else, but we struggled on the long-run and had the speeding penalty. For the third time this season, we pitted right when the caution came out. That set us back and we couldn’t get to the front when we needed to.”
Hamlin, who started sixth, ran inside the top-10 for much of the 400-mile race. Being inside the top-10 for much of the race put the 38-year-old in the midst of the jockeying on restarts. On several occasions, Hamlin found himself in the middle of three, four, and even five-wide battles. However, after each restart, the racing quickly became single file.
“As soon as we single-filed out, we were grip-limited,” Hamlin explained. “The best handling cars get to the front. There is a big draft and we’re not pack-racing by any means.”
The seventh-place finish is the fourth top-10 for Hamlin this season. It is also the 239th top-10 finish of his NASCAR Premier Series career.
Hamlin remains fourth in the championship points standings. The 2019 Daytona 500 Champion is 32-points begins points leader, and Auto Club 400 race winner, Busch. Hamlin is locked into the playoffs by virtue of his Daytona 500 win.