Just about a month ago, Denny Hamlin was on the outside looking in on the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and was less than a week from having reconstructive knee surgery. Coming off a win at Martinsville, Hamlin was only hoping for the best. He got what he was hoping for. Just a month after his knee surgery, Hamlin entered his second weekend where he would race in both the Nationwide and Cup races. But this time would be the first since his surgery and would be at one of the most physical tracks on the circuit: The Lady in Black more commonly known as Darlington.
The Nationwide Race took place on Friday night amid a sellout crowd at The Track Too Tough to Tame, where Hamlin and his teammate Kyle Busch would start on the front row, 1st and 2nd respectively. It would only take one lap for the first caution of the night to come out, as Brendan Gaughan tagged the wall off turn 2. The next caution would come out for a multi-car wreck, as James Buescher (#1 Chevy) got turned by Michael McDowell (#81 Mobile Shop Dodge), collecting Steve Arpin (#7 Chevy), Scott Lagasse Jr. (#43 American Red Cross Ford), and Joe Nemechek (#87 Toyota).
The late stages of the race proved to be a battle of pit strategy as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne (#38 Great Clips Toyota), and Stanton Barrett (#41 Kids Embrace Chevy) stayed out, while the rest of the field went into the pits. The Lady in Black sturck again late, this time taking out Matt Kenseth (#16 Coupons.com Ford). On the final restart, Hamlin was able to get away from Busch, while the rest of the field dodged Jason Leffler’s #10 ABF Toyota as it ran out of fuel on the final lap. Hamlin would go on to win the race, the first of two that weekend.
The next night was the Southern 500, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington. Jamie McMurray (#1 McDonald’s Chevy) started on pole with Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont / National Guard – Facebook Chevy) alongside. Jeff Gordon jumped out to the lead early and often, leading a race-high 110 laps. Meanwhile, the Lady in Black took her prisoners as Reed Sorenson (#32 Toyota), David Ragan (#6 UPS Toyota), and Michael McDowell (#55 Toyota) would all get the famed Darlington stripe, eventually bringing out the first caution.
Following the first caution, Jamie McMurray won the race off pit road and led the field back to green. The second caution would come out soon after, as Bobby Labonte (#71 TaxSlayer Chevy) and Joey Logano (#20 The Home Depot Toyota) spun, with Logano hitting the wall. The next caution would come a mere nine laps later when Paul Menard (#98 Menard’s Ford) spun on the backstretch, but kept it off the wall. The fourth caution would come out another 11 laps later when Greg Biffle (#16 3M Ford) spun, hitting Martin Truex Jr. (#56 NAPA Toyota), who collided with Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy).
Over the next quarter of the race, the dominant cars came to the front. Jeff Gordon became a staple in the lead, though Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Toyota), Kyle Busch (#18 Doublemint Gum Toyota), and Jeff Burton (#31 CAT Chevy) eventually were in the running for the lead. Green flag pit stops would ensue, and Hamlin would come out in the lead. Soon after, the fifth caution flew as Sam Hornish Jr. (#77 Mobil 1 Dodge) hit the wall hard out of turn 2. The next caution, though would be a surprise to the field as A.J. Allmendinger (#43 Insignia Ford) would see his brakes fail, causing him to slide up the track and collect Jimmie Johnson.
The next series of cautions would shuffle the deck at the front of the field, as drivers like Bobby Labonte, David Gilliland (#38 Taco Bell Ford), Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., and Tony Stewart (#14 Old Spice / Office Depot Chevy) would all bring out cautions. Meanwhile, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, and Denny Hamlin would all take turns at the front of the field, with Denny Hamlin eventually holding off the hungry Jeff Gordon to win the Southern 500.
The next race for the NASCAR Nationwide and Cup Series will be this coming weekend at Dover. In the Nationwide Series, Jason Keller (#35 Chevy) will be making his 500th Series start, the most of anyone in series history. On the Cup side, Jimmie Johnson swept the races there last year, while Denny Hamlin and his bionic knee look to win again. The races will be on ABC and FOX respectively.