NASCAR Barometer:  Denny Hamlin Bumps His Way to Victory at Kansas

NASCAR Barometer: Denny Hamlin Bumps His Way to Victory at Kansas

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Sunday's AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway did not lack drama with 37 lead changes and 11 cautions across the 400 miles races. The action was on full display all afternoon and the race even came down to the final lap as Denny Hamlin chased down leader Kyle Larson, bumping the No. 5 from behind and into the wall, and then pulled away to score his first victory of the season. The race came down to a long-run battle despite the multiple incidents causing it to be a short-run affair all afternoon. Hamlin's final lap move ended Larson's 46-lap run out front and prevented the Hendrick Motorsports driver from scoring what would have been his third win of the season with less than 1.5-miles remaining. Hamlin's finish line celebration was showered with boos as the crowd voiced its displeasure with his move, but Hamlin was the one smiling having scored his first win in nearly a year, easing the building playoff pressure as the season moves onward.

With nine playoff spots now claimed by race winners the pressure on the rest of the garage ratchets a notch higher this week at one of NASCAR's toughest tracks. Darlington Raceway looms with the Goodyear 400 and NASCAR's official "throwback weekend." Joey Logano won the race last season while Erik Jones captured the victory in the return visit in September. The track's abrasive surface, oblong shape, and unique banking makes it one of the most challenging tracks on the calendar. The quest for

Sunday's AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway did not lack drama with 37 lead changes and 11 cautions across the 400 miles races. The action was on full display all afternoon and the race even came down to the final lap as Denny Hamlin chased down leader Kyle Larson, bumping the No. 5 from behind and into the wall, and then pulled away to score his first victory of the season. The race came down to a long-run battle despite the multiple incidents causing it to be a short-run affair all afternoon. Hamlin's final lap move ended Larson's 46-lap run out front and prevented the Hendrick Motorsports driver from scoring what would have been his third win of the season with less than 1.5-miles remaining. Hamlin's finish line celebration was showered with boos as the crowd voiced its displeasure with his move, but Hamlin was the one smiling having scored his first win in nearly a year, easing the building playoff pressure as the season moves onward.

With nine playoff spots now claimed by race winners the pressure on the rest of the garage ratchets a notch higher this week at one of NASCAR's toughest tracks. Darlington Raceway looms with the Goodyear 400 and NASCAR's official "throwback weekend." Joey Logano won the race last season while Erik Jones captured the victory in the return visit in September. The track's abrasive surface, oblong shape, and unique banking makes it one of the most challenging tracks on the calendar. The quest for drivers to add their name to the growing list of winners marches onward.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin drove to the front in the opening segment Sunday and captured his fourth Kansas stage victory, his second stage win of the season, in a sign of what was to come later in the race. That long-run pace carried into the final stage, which set up a duel between Hamlin and Kyle Larson in the final miles for the race win. The No. 11 was able to close the gap to Larson but struggled to get the run he needed to make a pass. On the final lap, as both drivers were pushing hard, Hamlin tapped Larson in the rear, sending the No. 5 into the outside wall and clearing the path to Victory Lane for Hamlin to score his first win of the season and first in nearly a year. The win was Hamlin's fourth at Kansas, assures him of another chance at a series championship, and could be a sign of things to come. Hamlin has the most Darlington wins (four) of any active driver. He finished second there last fall and hasn't failed to lead a lap at the track since 2020.

Kyle Larson – Larson has two wins already in 2023 and was on his way to a third Sunday at Kansas despite an early spin. The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets were very fast all weekend, and Larson raced his way to the front in the final stage only to lose the top spot when he and Hamlin made contact on the final lap. That bump from behind sent Larson hard into the outside wall, but the former champion made an impressive save to keep the car pointed forward and crossed the finish line second. He led a race high 85 laps and the finish was his fifth top-five of the season. His two season wins will dampen the impact of losing out at Kansas, but fantasy players are likely to keep him at the top of their lists each week as long as his current competitiveness persists. Up next is a track he has never won at, but with seven top-10s from 10 starts this could be the week he does grab that Darlington victory.

Joey Logano - Logano opted not to pit in the last caution period before the end of Sunday's second stage. That choice gave him the track position that earned him the segment win when Kyle Busch lost control and crashed, bringing out the caution and ending the stage. It was an important decision for the defending series champion as he did not have the car that would otherwise have been able to compete for the race win. The decision to stay out earned him valuable points that could make the difference in the playoffs later on in the year. Team Penske's focus on the long game paid off again as Logano finished the race sixth to bring him his fifth-top-10 finish of the season in addition to the stage victory. This team is not losing sight of setting themselves up for success in the playoffs and that focus could pay dividends in the fall. Logano has one Darlington victory, which came last spring when he started from pole and led 107 laps. 

Ross Chastain - True to form, Chastain and his No. 1 machine were competitive at Kansas. Their fifth-place finish was their fifth top-five of the season and second in a row. Consistently running that well opens the door for victories, which is the last step Chastain needs to take in order to assure himself of another chance at racing for the series championship. However, continued aggressive racing threatens to haunt him. For the second week in a row Chastain added another potential enemy to his detractors in the form of Noah Gragson. Close racing between the pair led to contact and Gragson came off the worse of the two, with the rookie confronting Chastain on pit road following the race. This tendency of Chastain to cross the line of aggression is now firmly his reputation, and his growing list of on-track enemies will not help him find Victory Lane any more easily. Fantasy players attracted by the No. 1's speed must continue to weigh his risks, too.

William Byron - Sunday wasn't the most straightforward day for Byron despite starting on pole and finishing third. Early in the race he got loose and lost ground. However, he avoided damage and worked his way back to the front throughout the afternoon, ultimately returning to lead again with less than 70 laps remaining in the race. It was a day of perseverance that earned the No. 24 his fifth top-10 finish of the season. Fantasy players know Byron's ability to navigate the elimination rounds of the playoffs, but this season he appears to be bringing that prowess to the regular season, too. There has hardly been a week when Byron hasn't been competitive and it seems as though more race wins will be on the way in 2023. Fantasy players may want to keep him in mind this week at Darlington, too. He has three top-10 finishes at the track and led 74 total laps in the two races there last season.

DOWNGRADE

Christopher Bell - Late in the second stage Bell spun coming off of turn 2 and hit the inside wall. The damage was heavy enough that it knocked him out of the race completely, making it his worst finish on an oval since Fontana back in February. Bell had been running around the top 10 when Ross Chastain got tight ahead of him, causing Bell's accident. Luckily for the No. 20 team, their victory on the dirt at Bristol will keep them in the playoff picture without adding additional pressure from a DNF. However, Sunday's 36th-place finish was their third finish worse than 30th of the season, and they'll want to limit outcomes like that as much as possible. They get another chance to get back in the swing of things this week at a tough track that Bell has been improving at. He may only have two top-10 finishes at Darlington, but both of them came last season. 

Kyle Busch – Sunday was another afternoon to forget for the No. 8 team. Busch was tagged with yet another pit road speeding penalty, among other other issues, before his day finally ended with an on-track accident. Busch was the victim of close racing at the end of the second stage when traffic on a restart forced him to check up and spin into the inside wall. Just as Bell did before him, Busch was working to avoid traffic ahead and lost control only to clout the inside wall, knocking him out of the rest of the race. There is no doubt that Busch has the pace to compete frequently for victories with his new team, but there have been many mistakes and inconsistencies as the pairing continues to form. Busch's only Darlington win came in 2008. He also failed to finish last last three races at the track, including twice because of crashes. The coming race should be a competitive one for Busch and the team, but they have to eliminate the mistakes.

Austin Cindric – Cindric's woes continued Sunday in Kansas as a wheel issue compounded an already slow afternoon. The No. 2 was largely off the pace from the green flag onward in Kansas moving backward through the order and needing the free pass from the end of the first stage to return to the lead lap. Shortly after that stage break Cindric suffered a wheel problem, causing him to spin and bring out another caution. The miserable afternoon had Cindric finish seven laps down in 31st position. The result was the fourth finish in a row outside of the top 25 from the Team Penske driver who has just two top-10 finishes so far this season. The learning curve of the NASCAR Cup Series is a steep one, and Cindric is still climbing it. There is no doubt he has the talent to win races, but he and the team need to overcome their mistakes and deliver consistent top-15 and then top-10 finishes. Right now Cindric might be pleased with a top-20.

Ty Gibbs – Another young driver climbing the Cup learning curve is Ty Gibbs. The Xfinity Series champion had been delivering top results recently, but Sunday's adventure in Kansas was a lesson. The No. 54 spun coming off of turn 2 and did a nice job saving the car from heavy damage. However, he immediately undid that effort on the drive back to pit road. While driving back to his crew the flat tires from the spin disintegrated and destroyed much of his car's bodywork. Things got even worse when the damaged front wheels caused him to get stuck in the infield grass. The damage his attempt to quickly return to pit road caused actually ended his day whereas a more calm and composed return could have kept him in the action to gain some valuable points. Fantasy players will chalk it up as a learning experience, but it shows them that Gibbs may have more maturing to do in the series.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

AJ Allmendinger – It has been a challenging full-time return to Cup Series competition for Allmendinger this season. He remains a top selection on road courses, but has struggled to get into the top 15 on ovals. His best result of the season was his sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500, but he quietly scored his first top-15 result since then Sunday at Kansas. It was a confidence-boosting day for him and his Kaulig Racing team, which they sorely needed. Fantasy players will want to keep an eye on this team to see if they can use Sunday's result as a starting point to build upon. Regular top-15 finishes should be the expectation each week, not just road courses. If they can live up to that potential the No. 16 might make a more compelling choice on every type of track. Watch to see if they can replicate Sunday's effort this week at Darlington where Allmendinger has no series top-10 finishes and just one top-15.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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