FORT WORTH — Looking to make his first pit stop, Denny Hamlin missed the entrance to pit road. Once he stopped the next time around, he committed a pit lane speeding violation.
Hamlin recovered to win Stage 2 of Sunday’s three-segment race, then served a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on the ensuing pit stop. Oh, he also said he ran out of fuel at one point.
Despite those issues, Hamlin raced back to the front and outperformed Clint Bowyer on the final pit stop to win the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Our car was really, really fast,” Hamlin said. “Once we got out front, we were actually able to pull away from the pack a little bit. … We tried every way we could to give it away, and we found a way to [win] with this FedEx Camry.”
The second victory of the season for the Daytona 500 winner clinches a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff. It’s Hamlin’s third career victory in Fort Worth and his 33rd overall.
Bowyer finished second and was followed by Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and polesitter Jimmie Johnson, who led 60 laps and earned his first top-five result of the season.
“Hey, I wanted to catch him bad,” Bowyer said. “He just came out of the pits way too far ahead of me, and wasn’t much I could do about it.
“What a wild race. Just about the time you think you’re going to have some stage points [by placing in the top 10], the caution would come out, and then you thought you were back in it and it happened again. Then you’re like, ‘Well, damn. What kind of haymakers are going to be thrown at the end?’ and it just didn’t.”
Hamlin was sixth on a restart with 74 laps remaining. About 15 laps later, leader Kyle Busch lost control in Turn 2 and fell to fourth place. That put Hamlin second behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Jones.
Jones pitted for fuel on Lap 303 of the 334-lap event. Hamlin, Bowyer and other leading drivers waited until there were about 15 laps remaining to get service. Bowyer was stalking Hamlin for the lead before they stopped, but Hamlin and his team spent less time on pit road and emerged with a 2.5-second gap.
“Once we got the clean air in the front, [Jones] pulled off for his pit stop, it allowed me to be more aggressive with the way I was driving,” Hamlin said. “Then we made a really good adjustment there at the end that got our car better.”
Busch led a race-high 66 laps but fell short of a weekend sweep after winning the Truck Series and Xfinity races at TMS. He finished 10th, one spot behind brother Kurt Busch.
Hamlin led 45 laps in the No. 11 Toyota. The race boasted 26 lead changes among 13 drivers.
Hamlin closed to within eight points of standings leader Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick finished eighth and is 33 points out of the lead, Joey Logano (17th) is 35 points out in fourth and Aric Almirola (seventh) is 65 points out in fifth.
Harvick and Almirola have yet to win this season. All seven races have been won by Gibbs or Team Penske.
Sunday’s race was the first at TMS with NASCAR’s new rules designed to keep the competitors closer together. The package includes a taller rear spoiler and reduced horsepower.
“Our car was really reliant on drafting — having somebody in front of me to run fast lap times,” Hamlin said. “I really thought I figured something out inside the car that made me able to be more aggressive, even in traffic, than what I was earlier in the day.”
Hamlin’s worst finish this season is 11th place at Atlanta Motor Speedway. … Hamlin’s previous wins in Denton County came via a season sweep in 2010. … The winner of Stage 2 has won the last five races this season and the last three at TMS. … Chris Buescher of Prosper finished 20th. Former Texas State student Bayley Currey of Driftwood finished 35th in his second Cup race.