Why Denny Hamlin’s Richmond race win sparked so much debate

Denny Hamlin won for a second time in the 2024 NASCAR season but his victory in Richmond wasn't without controversy

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Overtime in NASCAR can be a tense moment for drivers as they have just two laps (or more if a caution occurs before the white flag) to make a final charge for the win, and one has to be almost perfect to have a shot. On the other hand, Denny Hamlin may, or may not, have been too eager to win last Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.

As he led the field to the green flag to begin overtime, Hamlin noticeably restarted just a moment quicker than his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Martin Truex Jr., who restarted next to him on the front row, before both cars entered the marked restart zone. Introduced in 2013 and stretching a few meters before the start/finish line, cars must be within the restart zone before they can fully accelerate. If a car went too soon before that, they would receive a penalty.

While Hamlin certainly earned his spot in first place for overtime as he was leading when Kyle Larson was spun by Bubba Wallace with two laps remaining to set up overtime, those like Truex felt he moved far too soon and should have been penalised. Video replay also validated their suspicions as did telemetry data on Hamlin’s car.

However, NASCAR ultimately decided against investigating the restart, which the sanctioning body justified as simply not having enough time to launch a proper review at that moment; Richmond is a short track at just .750 miles in length, with average lap times ranging between 20 and 22 seconds.

Since overtime is only two laps long, NASCAR would have had less than a minute to make a final judgment. While they could have still waited to declare a race winner official, as they did following the three-wide finish at Atlanta in March, there were too many circumstances going on that the thought may have not crossed their mind.

With officials not looking into the restart, Hamlin simply beat Truex in Turn 1 to score his second win of the 2024 Cup Series season, second in a row (incidentally also at a short track), and fifth at his home circuit.

“I went right at it, for sure,” said Hamlin in his post-race press conference. “I did that because I saw those guys rolling to me. The #22 (Joey Logano) was laying back. The #19 (Truex) was rolling a couple miles an hour quicker than I was. I wasn’t going to let them have an advantage that my team earned on pit road. Certainly made sure I went to my nose, got there, but I took off right away. Still, we were side by side down the water into Turn 1.”

The controversy continued for days

Hamlin, ever the outspoken figure, further fanned the flames on social media as fans and industry continued to debate the restart.

“I sure wish someone would come out with a new paint scheme or something,” he wrote on X (formerly Twitter) two days after the race. “Ain’t y’all tired of talking about the same thing for 48 hours now? Our team won the race because of the pit crew. Not the restart. Y’all just sour.”

A postmortem review of the race by NASCAR subsequently confirmed everyone’s suspicions that Hamlin restarted too soon. Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer said on Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that there was “no doubt he rolled early.” Still, he defended not making a decision due to the timing as a “bang-bang call.”

“We’re a live sporting event,” Sawyer stated. “We don’t have the luxury of a timeout, and go to the sidelines, and review it, and make that call. If this happens at Lap 10 or 50 or 300, the call could have been different. If I’m a competitor, I wouldn’t be playing that game every week.”

Even Hamlin admitted to it on his Actions Detrimental podcast, saying he went “pretty early in the zone,” but stressed that what was visible to the naked eye from the outside did not reflect his actual behaviour inside the car.

“If they know you’re going to fire in a spot, they can actually fire before you,” Hamlin explained. “I concede that on TV, it looks worse than what it felt like in the car. A lot of the reason of that is that when I’m restarting the race, I’m not looking at the flagman, I’m not looking at my dash, I’m not looking at anything. All I’m looking at is my mirror and my side peripheral.”

Justin Nguyen
Justin Nguyen is Total-Motorsport.com's resident NASCAR aficionado and is also the off-road reporter for The Checkered Flag.
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