Denny Hamlin beat Matt DiBenedetto by feet to win at Talladega in a marathon of a race that had an absurdly ridiculous finish.
Hamlin is locked into the third round of the playoffs with the win. His winning pass came as he went to the apron in turn four to avoid William Byron’s car as Byron almost spun around. Byron saved the car and kept going as Hamlin ended up beating Matt DiBenedetto and Byron to the finish line.
Hamlin went below the yellow line when he went to the apron. That’s typically against NASCAR rules. But NASCAR ruled that he was avoiding Byron’s car — and, yes, Byron did a heck of a job to not crash — and gave Hamlin his seventh win of the season in a race that lasted 12 laps longer than scheduled.
DiBenedetto got his second-place finish taken away after the race because he was ruled to have forced Byron below the yellow line before Hamlin made his winning move below the yellow line. NASCAR’s yellow line only exists at Daytona and Talladega and the sanctioning body says that drivers can’t block other drivers below the line and can’t make passes themselves below that line.
If you’re not confused, we’re surprised. The easiest thing NASCAR can do is simply get rid of the yellow line. It causes more complications than solved problems.
Hamlin was 6th on the final lap
Hamlin went from sixth to first on the final lap. Here’s how he did it.
Chris Buescher pushed DiBenedetto to the lead at the white flag. Byron got alongside Buescher and created a gap between Buescher and DiBenedetto.
Hamlin then tucked in behind Byron as the top six had a gap on the rest of the field. DiBenedetto led Erik Jones and the rest of the field down the backstretch.
The top two cars got apart from each other — remember, drafting equals speed — and Hamlin was in fifth at this point. A crash happened on the backstretch as the top five cars entered turn three but NASCAR didn’t throw a caution.
Byron pushed Buescher to a pass on Jones for second and Jones blocked. That block busted the momentum Buescher and Byron had created and also slowed DiBenedetto via the draft. That then opened a hole for Hamlin to dive to the inside.
As the top four cars jockeyed for position in turns three and four, Hamlin went to the apron when DiBenedetto blocked Byron, and Byron’s car almost spun out. Hamlin stayed on the gas and got back onto the track on the exit of the fourth turn.
At that point it was a drag race to the finish as Brad Keselowski spun behind the leaders. Hamlin used the side-draft to creep ahead of both Byron and DiBenedetto in the tri-oval and get the win.
NBC punted the finish to cable
NASCAR got a dose of sports pecking order reality on Sunday when NBC moved the race from its broadcast network to NBC Sports Network.
The race was pushed to NBCSN at approximately 6:05 p.m. ET, 25 minutes ahead of the NBC Nightly News and in the window for local news broadcasts across the country. As you know, NFL games and other sporting events routinely go into local broadcast news windows and sometimes outright cancel those broadcasts.
That didn’t happen on Sunday. Viewers across the country were sent to local news broadcasts as one of the finishes of the most climactic races of NASCAR’s postseason was sent to cable.
It’s hard to find a modern broadcasting decision parallel for a major sport. Postseason games in any other major stick-and-ball sport would stay on their scheduled network until they were over. Or, at the very least, until the national news was actually set to begin.
Are NASCAR and auto racing as a whole a major sport any longer? It’s a fair question to ask. NASCAR routinely draws audiences above 2 million viewers but is dwarfed by the NFL every fall. It is, at this point, a niche series that has fallen from its viewer highs pre-recession in the late 2000s.
That’s unfortunate for the series. NASCAR is doing a lot to try to get back to where it was even if that is an unachievable goal. And getting one of the most dramatic races of the season pushed to cable because it went too long is not a sign that NASCAR is on the way back to being mainstream.
The race took forever
The official time of Sunday’s race was four hours and five minutes and that doesn’t include the two red flags thanks to crashes.
There were 13 cautions for 54 laps in the 200-lap race. Four of those cautions were for crashes that included five cars or more. And there were cars that were involved in multiple wrecks. Oh, the race also didn’t even get a lap complete before there was a caution.
The scariest crash came when Kurt Busch got hit, hit the wall head-on and then went into the air and on top of Clint Bowyer’s car in the second stage. Busch had a free pass during Sunday’s race since he won a week ago at Las Vegas to advance to the third round so the wreck didn’t hurt his playoff chances. And thankfully he got out of his car and walked away from the crash uninjured.
His brother Kyle was a part of multiple cautions. Kyle Busch ended up 27th after his car was in or caused four separate cautions.
That was one spot behind Joey Logano, a driver who received two penalties for forcing drivers below the yellow line.
The pre-Roval playoff picture
Hamlin and Kurt Busch can do whatever they want at the Roval next week and they’re in the third round of the playoffs. So can Kevin Harvick, a driver who is now 68 points ahead of Austin Dillon in ninth. He’s also locked in.
Everyone else will have to earn it in the final race of the second round. And there’s a decent gap from eighth to ninth. Logano is currently in the final third-round spot and is 21 points ahead of Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch in ninth.
Dillon and Busch can get into the third round if a driver or two ahead of them has trouble and they have a good finish. The same doesn’t go for Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola. While both drivers could make it into the third round on points, they’re likely needing wins at Charlotte to advance to the next round.
Here are the standings entering the final race of the second round. Remember, a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a race.
1. Denny Hamlin (win at Talladega)
2. Kurt Busch (win at Las Vegas)
3. Kevin Harvick, 3,121
4. Brad Keselowski, 3,094
5. Martin Truex Jr., 3.085
6. Chase Elliott, 3,080
7. Alex Bowman, 3,075
8. Joey Logano, 3,074
9. Austin Dillon, 3,053
10. Kyle Busch, 3,053
11. Clint Bowyer, 3,036
12. Aric Almirola, 3,026
1. Denny Hamlin
2. Erik Jones
3. Ty Dillon
4. William Byron
5. Ryan Newman
6. Chris Buescher
7. Tyler Reddick
8. John Hunter Nemechek
9. Brennan Poole
10. Ryan Preece
11. Justin Haley
12. Austin Dillon
13. Quin Houff
14. Alex Bowman
15. Timmy Hill
16. Matt Kenseth
17. Joey Gase
18. Brad Keselowski
19. Cody Ware
20. Kevin Harvick
21. Matt DiBenedetto
22. Chase Elliott
23. Martin Truex Jr.
24. Bubba Wallace
25. Ryan Blaney
26. Joey Logano
27. Kyle Busch
28. Corey LaJoie
29. Jimmie Johnson
30. James Davison
31. Cole Custer
32. Kurt Busch
33. Clint Bowuyer
34. Daniel Suarez
35. Brendan Gaughan
36. Michael McDowell
37. Aric Almirola
38. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
39. Christopher Bell