THOMAS: “Hamlin, Larson and Chastain will put on show”
By Hunter Thomas
The on-track action and tempers that Kansas Speedway produced set Darlington Raceway’s Goodyear 400 up for an incredible show come Mother’s Day.
Darlington Raceway has seen hardnosed drivers like Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson tame the Lady in Black, but today, you can’t mention Darlington without listing Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain as race contenders. In recent years, the three drivers have put on a show at Darlington Raceway, and on Sunday at Kansas Speedway, they pushed their cars and fellow competitors to the limit.
In the final laps of the AdventHealth 400, Hamlin and Larson mirrored each other as they battled for the lead. Larson already had two wins this season, but Hamlin hadn’t seen Victory Lane since May of last year, when he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hungry for a win, Hamlin made contact with Larson on the final lap and turned him into the wall while attempting to side draft. The victory placed Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 FedEx Toyota in Victory Lane, while Larson limped his way back to the finish line to finish second.
Hamlin said, “I was sideways and he was sideways, and as he started to — I knew it was going to be close whether he was going to clear me, and I’m just trying to grind on his left side, trying to keep the side draft as tight as I could, and it’s just a super sensitive part of the car if you get to the left rear, and obviously it hooked him to the right, and we won. The end.”
Larson didn’t display any frustration in his post-race interview, probably because he still finished second and a Playoff berth wasn’t on the line, but as you could imagine, Larson probably won’t cut Hamlin any slack at Darlington if the roles are reversed come this weekend. The two drivers are friends off the track, but Sunday is for the money.
“I was really loose,” Larson said. “I was trying to do what I could to manage it. I was really loose at that end and, yeah, (Denny Hamlin) was just a little better than me at the end.”
The finish at Kansas is interesting because both drivers are extremely good at getting around Darlington, and the chances of them fighting for a win is quite high.
Hamlin has four wins at Darlington, with the most recent one coming in September of 2021. In 21 starts, he has led 792 laps and has an average finish of 7.5. Meanwhile, Larson has finished within the top-five in half of his 10 series starts at the track. He even strung three runner-up finishes together between 2019 and 2021. Note, he was sidelined due to a suspension in 2020. Larson’s average finish at Darlington is 9.2, mainly because he had an engine failure during the Goodyear 400 last year and finished 36th. It’ll be quite the show when Larson and Hamlin race each other hard on Sunday.
Also, on Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Ross Chastain added an additional driver to his list of rivals. Chastain’s hardnosed, competitive racing style has been ruffling feathers on nearly a weekly basis this season, but he continues to get the job done. Following the checkered flag in Kansas, Noah Gragson approached Chastain on pit road and grabbed his firesuit. In response, Chastain punched Gragson in the face. The two were quickly broken up by NASCAR security, but the altercation is a representation of how the tempers are beginning to rise in the garage.
“I got tight off of (Turn) 4 for sure,” Chastain said. “Noah and I have a very similar attitude on the racetrack, and we train together, we prepare together, we know each other’s — every little bit about each other. Yeah, definitely crowded him up off of (Turn) 4, and he took a swipe at us in (Turn) 3, and then he came down and grabbed a hold of me, and a very big man once told me we have a no-push policy here at Trackhouse.”
Following the fight, Gragson told the Motor Racing Network, “I’m not going to tear the Trackhouse guys’ stuff up. I respect their hard work and everything, but nobody confronts the guy (Chastain), and I went down there – grabbed him to show my displeasure, so I’m sick and tired of it. The guy just runs into everyone.”
Chastain doesn’t have the best statistics at Darlington; however, since he joined Trackhouse Racing last year, he has been a driver to watch at the track. In fact, during the Goodyear 400 last year, Chastain was leading when he spun exiting Turn 2. This season, Trackhouse Racing appears stronger than ever. Chastain leads the series standings. He has finished inside of the top-10 in half of the races this year, and three of those finishes were top-three efforts.
I would be shocked to not see Hamlin, Larson and Chastain competing up front this weekend at Darlington; however, if I had to put money on a driver though, I’d probably go with Kevin Harvick who has finished in the top-five in 7 of the last 9 Darlington races. This season is Harvick’s last, so you know he’ll be hungry for another Darlington win. Other drivers to watch include Christopher Bell who currently sits second in the points and finished sixth in last year’s Goodyear 400. Former Darlington winner, Kyle Busch is another strong competitor to keep an eye on Sunday as well.
The NASCAR Cup Series will hit the track for the first time this weekend on Saturday, beginning with practice at 10:35 a.m., followed by qualifying at 11:20 a.m. The Goodyear 400 will broadcast live on FS1 on Sunday, May 14 at 3 p.m.