Denny Hamlin stole the show in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Darlington.
Hamlin passed Austin Hill in the final lap to emerge victorious at the “Track Too Tough to Tame” for the sixth time in his career.
Hill and John Hunter Nemechek led for most of Saturday’s race, but Hamlin stayed close to the top of the leaderboard throughout the afternoon. And then, after a late caution prompted an overtime restart, Hamlin cleared Hill by Turn 1 and never relinquished the lead.
Hill finished second. John Hunter Nemechek finished third, and Cole Custer was fourth.
“I really needed some long runs,” Hamlin said in his post-race interview on USA Network, “but I really didn’t want to show everything we had until the very end of the race.”
Nemechek, the pole winner for the second time in his five races at Darlington, led for nearly the entirety of the first two stages. He’s been back-and-forth with Austin Hill, the current points leader, for the Xfinity Series lead throughout the season.
The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is now 23 points behind Hill for the series lead.
“We really did what we needed to do today — that was get stage points and finish solidly in the top five,” Nemechek, who won Stages 1 and 2, told reporters. “But, yeah, I’m definitely gonna sleep on this tonight and be pretty frustrated with myself about these restarts, what I could have done differently going forward to try to win this race next time.”
Hamlin, driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota for the first time in his lone Xfinity Series race of the season, passed Hill and Nemechek for the lead roughly halfway through the final stage.
Only 12 drivers will qualify for the Xfinity Series playoffs, which begin Sept. 15 at Bristol, unlike the Cup Series’ 16-driver playoffs that open Sunday at Darlington.
Custer, who finished fourth and remains in the top five, was among the eight drivers who entered Saturday having clinched a spot in the playoffs. He could have passed Nemechek and the other top drivers with a win, and then ran in the top five for most of the race.
“We’re still searching a little bit to find that little bit more,” Custer said. “We’re close, but it’s just a matter of putting the whole thing together. We just have to keep building some consistency here.”
Toward the end of Stage 1, Josh Williams’ entire right fender fell off his No. 92 Chevy, and a caution was issued for the debris, the first of seven cautions.
Another occurred with seven laps to go, as Parker Kligerman got clipped by Sam Mayer, turned sideways and spiraled toward the wall. Kligerman entered Saturday on the heels of six straight top-10 finishes to jump into the 12th and final playoff spot. But Kligerman, whose highest finish in three Xfinity Series starts at Darlington was 13th, fell all the way to 24th.
Riley Herbst, who finished 24th last week at Daytona due to power steering issues and a blown tire, came in sixth, his third-highest finish in seven starts at Darlington.
“Last week, we just wanted to execute and be at the front of Daytona, but we ran one lap and had a mechanical issue,” Herbst said. “To finish the race is obviously a positive. To finish sixth is good. ... As much as everybody hypes up these points and stuff, we want to get into them obviously, but if you get into them and you don’t win, what does it really matter at that point?
“I’m going to Kansas to win the race.”
Unofficial results from Darlington
John Hunter Nemechek
Joe Graf Jr.