With 17 laps to go in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, Denny Hamlin was the last car on the lead lap. When the caution-filled YellaWood 500 finally ended in triple overtime, Hamlin was out front.
Using a stay-out-of-trouble strategy and riding well back in the field, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver collected his seventh victory of the year and an automatic entry into the series playoffs' Round of 8, which begins in two weeks at Kansas Speedway.
"This one was unexpected to say the least." Hamlin said, searching for words. "Really excited about this win."
Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota emerged from a jumbled pack of cars on the final lap to beat Matt DiBenedetto of the fabled Wood Brothers Racing by .023 seconds.
It was win No. 44 of Hamlin's Cup career. But it didn't come until NASCAR reviewed video to make sure he did not make his winning pass below the double yellow line.
"A lot of attrition," Hamlin said when asked how he got the victory. "We just played the strategy, the numbers game, to run the back until we were locked in. Things just worked out."
The win tied Hamlin with Bill Elliott on the all-time victory list. That, too, thrilled Hamlin.
"So much," he said when asked how much it meant. "He was a childhood hero growing up."
DiBenedetto appeared to finish second, but a penalty for forcing William Byron below the yellow out-of-bounds line dropped him to 21st.
Erik Jones of the Gibbs team took second place, followed by Ty Dillon, Byron and Ryan Newman.
Hamlin was the only playoff driver to finish in the top 10 as surly Talladega took a huge toll on drivers still eligible to win the championship.
He joins Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing as winners in the Round of 12.
The race set a record for cautions at the Alabama track with 15. And they started early.
A wreck with three laps to go in Stage 1 had major implications for the playoffs. The wreck involved three drivers hovering around the cutoff line with two races remaining in the Round of 12 -- Aric Almirola of Stewart-Haas Racing, Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing and Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports.
Almirola's Ford, which was leading at the time, suffered the most damage -- enough to end his day. "I thought we were going to have a good shot to win," Almirola said. "Our car was so fast."
He will now have to win next weekend at the Charlotte road course to advance into the Round of 8.
Busch and Bowman rolled on but a couple laps into the second stage, Busch blew his left front tire. The disintegrating tire then tore the front fender off the car. But Busch's crew went to work and kept him in the race.
On Lap 198, there was more trouble for Kyle Busch -- and a couple other playoff drivers. Stewart-Haas's Clint Bowyer pushed Jimmie Johnson sideways and created a huge wreck. Bowyer paid the big price as his car was damaged beyond control. Bowyer will likely now have to win next weekend to make the Round of 8.
"You got to go," Bowyer said of his aggressiveness. "You've got to push him."
The Busch brothers were also involved in the wreck. Kyle was T-boned as he attempted to avoid Johnson's car. Kurt Busch, who will be in the Round of 8 after winning a week ago in Las Vegas, was sent flying into the air and out of the race. Once again, Kyle's crew kept him in the race.
"That was a wild ride," Kurt Busch said. "That's the nature of this sport. You're on top one week with a win and everything's fantastic and this week here at Talladega, was looking for a nice smooth run and gain some points ... the next thing I know I'm going for one of the wildest rides I've ever been in."
Also involved were playoff drivers Brad Keselowski of Team Penske and Austin Dillon of Richard Childress Racing. Keselowski was able continue on but Dillon needed to take his car behind the wall for work.
Another "Big One" wreck occurred in overtime and involved several playoff drivers. One was, of course, Kyle Busch and this time his crew could not put his car back together.
Also involved were points-leader Kevin Harvick of SHR, Martin Truex Jr. of JGR and Joey Logano of Team Penske, who had led a race-best 45 laps.