Pit stops cost Hamlin a Championship 4 berth in Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, VA — You win as a team and lose as a team. Unfortunately, that gets magnified in a situation like Denny Hamlin was facing during Sunday’s Xfinity 500. Hamlin entered the Round of 8 elimination race 5 points below the cutline and leaves it 4 points out. Stats say he gained 1 point. However, that’s not the whole story either.

Hamlin qualified 11th for Sunday’s Round of 8 elimination race but knew when he strapped in his No. 11 Toyota he had a car capable of so much more.

It’s why it didn’t take him long to get inside of the top 10. On Lap 120, he passed Chase Elliott for the top spot. He’d lead the next 203 laps in the process which included a pair of stage wins. That netted him 20 stage points. William Byron meanwhile started 25th and was a lap down at each stage break and had 0 stage points to his name.

Hamlin came into the final stage well ahead of the cutline and was looking like he was going to be advancing to his 5th career Championship 4, 4 of which coming in-a-row. However, pit road, his teammate and a last lap dash by Ross Chastain kept him out instead.

On Lap 319, Austin Dillon crashed in Turn 4 bringing out the fourth caution of the race. The leaders hit pit lane under this caution on Lap 322. Hamlin’s crew had a rough go of it and dropped him from first entering to fourth exiting. He would hang inside of the top five after until the next caution came on Lap 392 for JJ Yeley in Turn 3. The leaders pit on Lap 395. Hamlin lost two more spots on pit road.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 30: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Direct Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

All the while, his teammate Christopher Bell was now leading and taking a guaranteed spot to Phoenix if he could stay there. As a result, it shaped a battle between Hamlin and Ross Chastain for the 4th and final spot to the final round. Hamlin was well ahead but due to two problematic pit stops, was in a closer battle than it should have been.

Then came the final caution on Lap 466 for Landon Cassill in Turn 3. The leaders hit pit lane for one final time. Hamlin lost 5 more spots in the process.

“You got to execute all day. We just didn’t control the race when we had control of it,” a disappointed Hamlin said. “Each caution we just kept losing some spots. That’s the way it is.

“But thank Chris Gabehart, the whole FedEx Camry team for giving me a fast car today. It was unbelievable when it was out front.

Yeah, just couldn’t quite hang on to it there on pit road.”

Now he was on the outside looking in. That’s 10 spots lost on pit road in the final 3 stops of the day. Hamlin drove his ass off to get back up to 5th on the final lap and was now back inside of the cutline. Chastain was 10th at the white flag. Chastain made a miraculous move on the final lap that looked like a video game in going from 10th to 5th to push Hamlin back out and him missing the final round by 4 points because Bell ended up in victory lane.

“Certainly. We’re trying to battle. Obviously I was trying to get in there,” said Hamlin. “But it’s racing. It’s what racing is here as Martinsville. Actually pretty happy with somewhat how clean it was there towards the end, as crazy was it was with guys on different tires.

“Can’t say enough for my team to give us a shot. We were in 20s for most of the season in our points because of our up-and-down execution.

“We’re going to end up fifth in points. That is what it is.”

Hamlin had nothing but praise for Chastain in his late race dash by him.

“Great move. Brilliant. Certainly a great move. When you have no other choice, it certainly is easy to do that. But well executed.”

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