Denny Hamlin claimed his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the season on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, a day after winning at the same track in the Nationwide Series.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver became the first man to sweep the weekend at the track known as "too tough to tame" since Mark Martin did it back in 1993.
On Friday Hamlin kept his teammate Kyle Busch at bay in the closing stages of the Nationwide race, but in Saturday night's Cup event he had to cope with a number of different challengers, although some of them ran into trouble late on, making things easier for the Virginia-born racer.
After being a factor at the front for most of the race, Hamlin started to build toward his victory when he jumped to the lead following the penultimate caution of the day. He seemed in control of the race at that point but as the final stop for fuel for the leaders approached, he came under pressure from Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton, who got by him just before the final caution of the day came out 26 laps from the end.
Hamlin's crew was able to put its driver back up front in the pits as the leaders all took on two new tires only, track position proving more crucial than an eventual grip advantage all night. From then on the 29-year-old kept his car at the front as most of those who had proved a clear threat for victory vanished when it mattered.
Burton received a penalty after running over an air hose during that final stop and dropped down the order for the final restart, while Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon, who led a race-high 111 laps, lost any chance of victory when he missed the pit entry while trying to stop right before the final caution came out, losing a number of spots as a consequence.
Both of their misfortunes made it a bit easier for Hamlin to win for the first time at Cup level at Darlington, as he kept Earnhardt Ganassi's Jamie McMurray well under control behind him in the final laps.
"I think we got to fourth or so, then we took the two tires and other guys kept taking two tires over and over again so their lefts were so old that I knew if we could just get the jump on that last restart we should have no problem," said Hamlin.
"From there it was just clear sailing. Mike [Ford, crew chief] did a great job of adjusting on it. We kind of went back and forth with it but he got it right where it needed to be on that last run."
Polesitter McMurray ran a very strong race to finish second, leading 70 laps in the process. His pit crew allowed him to to regain the lead after losing it twice in the early going, and he coupled that with great restarts from the inside lane to spend a good amount of laps making the most of clean air up front.
In the closing stages, he switched to a different tire strategy to Hamlin and most of the frontrunners, taking four new tires when the leaders stopped during the eighth caution of the day, then taking two to get track position back on his next stop during the penultimate caution. He also changed only right-side tires on his final pit stop and despite a little bit more tire wear on his left-sides relative to his pursuers, he was able to get second place for the second time in the last three races.
"Track position was just key," said McMurray. "It seemed like left-side tires didn't make a big difference and we had to put four; we got back in the pack a little bit and could only get back to fifth or sixth. Bono [Kevin Manion, crew chief] told me we weren't putting lefts on again for the rest of the night and I was a little shocked by that.
"At the end, we got a good restart. It just seemed like left-side tires didn't wear out."
Kurt Busch did not lead a lap all night but ran a consistent race which was rewarded with third place, ahead of a disappointed Gordon, who made a great recovery in the closing laps but once again missed on a great opportunity to claim his first win of the season.
"We were going to come in and pit a little early and take two [tires], I just didn't signal the guys behind me and I was going to get run over," said Gordon about missing the pit entry on his original attempt to make his final stop.
"I just didn't get slowed down good enough. My fault. Of course, Steve [Letarte, crew chief] is saying if we had pitted and the caution would have come out, we might have been in worse trouble, but I still don't like making mistakes like that."
Juan Pablo Montoya just edged points leader Kevin Harvick for fifth place, claiming yet another good result which allows him to recover ground in the standings. The Earnhardt Ganassi driver, whose previous best at Darlington was a 20th place, ran most of the race in the top 10 and despite a couple of brushes with the wall he was able to nurse his Chevy to his fourth top five result of the season.
"We worked really hard all day," said Montoya. "In the beginning [the car] was really fast, and then it went away. Got it, went away... It was really hard. It was hard work. I hit the wall a couple of times, but nothing major. I was pretty happy. I'm just relieved we got to the end to tell you the truth."
Kyle Busch ran the same tire strategy as McMurray but seemed to lose speed following the final restart, dropping from second down to seventh in the last 20 laps. Burton recovered from his penalty to finish eighth, while Stewart Haas' Ryan Newman was ninth ahead of of Brian Vickers' Red Bull Toyota.
For some of the series' main players the night at Darlington proved an eventful one. Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson brushed the wall twice before ending his race in a massive crash with AJ Allmendinger, who lost control of his car after a suspected brake problem, spinning and collecting the Hendrick driver at high speed between Turns 3 and 4.
Tony Stewart continued his bad streak, finishing down in 23rd after hitting the wall hard and then spinning with a battered rear end on lap 200. He led a few laps early on after pitting for fuel only but did not quite have the pace to remain a contender at the front. He has lost three places in the standings and is now 18th behind both Earnhardt Ganassi drivers.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Denny Hamlin Toyota 367
2. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 367
3. Kurt Busch Dodge 367
4. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 367
5. Juan Pablo Montoya Chevrolet 367
6. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 367
7. Kyle Busch Toyota 367
8. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 367
9. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 367
10. Brian Vickers Toyota 367
11. David Reutimann Toyota 367
12. Brad Keselowski Dodge 367
13. Matt Kenseth Ford 367
14. David Ragan Ford 367
15. Carl Edwards Ford 367
16. Mark Martin Chevrolet 367
17. Regan Smith Chevrolet 367
18. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 367
19. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 366
20. Kasey Kahne Ford 366
21. Elliott Sadler Ford 366
22. Greg Biffle Ford 366
23. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 366
24. David Stremme Ford 365
25. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 364
26. Travis Kvapil Ford 364
27. Joey Logano Toyota 363
28. Scott Speed Toyota 363
29. Max Papis Toyota 361
30. Paul Menard Ford 359
31. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 358
32. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 331
33. Kevin Conway Ford 309
34. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 297
35. David Gilliland Ford 283
36. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 179
37. AJ Allmendinger Ford 178
38. Robby Gordon Toyota 170
39. Todd Bodine Toyota 47
40. Michael McDowell Toyota 44
41. JJ Yeley Dodge 42
42. Dave Blaney Toyota 35
43. Reed Sorenson Toyota 19