Sunday's motors: Denny Hamlin wins Southern 500 to open NASCAR Cup playoffs

Associated Press

Darlington, S.C. — Denny Hamlin held off Kyle Larson after their cars hit nose to tail racing to the finish line Sunday night in the Southern 500 to open the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Hamlin won for the first time this season after entering the week seeded seventh in the 16-driver postseason field and vowing if he kept running strongly up front, he'd reach Victory Lane before the year ended.

Denny Hamlin celebrates in victory lane after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Darlington, S.C.

“It’s as good a time as any right?” Hamlin said in victory lane. “My favorite race of the year.”

He looked like a comfortable winner before the top-seeded Larson charged up on his back bumper on the final turn, smoke pouring out of Larson's car. But Hamlin held firm up near the wall to take the checkered flag

“He was going to have to go through me,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin came out second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. during a caution with 45 laps to go, and moved in front when Truex was penalized for going too fast in the pits.

Hamlin broke out ahead of Larson on the restart 36 laps from the end.

The win was Hamlin's fourth at Darlington Raceway and moved him into the round of 12 in the knockout format in a grueling race where several playoff contenders struggled at the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

The past two series champions, Kyle Busch in 2019 and Chase Elliott last year, were in the garage before the race ended. Busch slammed the wall — to the delight of large crowd back at Darlington — and drove straight to his hauler.

Elliott was caught in a three-wide sandwich where he was next to the wall. He came away with tire and brake problems.

Larson was second for the third straight time racing at Darlington. He led the most laps, 156 out of 367.

He made it crazy at the end.

“I didn't want to wreck him. I just wanted to get to his outside,” Larson said. “He did a great job, not really making any mistakes on that last run.”

Ross Chastain finished third, the only non-playoff driver among the top eight.

Chastain ran among the playoff cars most of the night. He was asked what he needed to breakthrough here. “A better driver,” he chuckled. “I can go fast, I just can't quite race with them.”

Chastain will drive the No. 1 car for Trackhouse Racing in 2022.

Truex was fourth, followed by Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Chris Buescher and Austin Dillon.

Plenty of drivers with high playoff hopes left Darlington with problems, including two-time series champion Busch. Soon after the start of stage two, the fourth-seeded Busch was racing close with Austin Dillon when he hit the outside wall in turn two, slid into the inside wall and drove straight to garage. Busch even plowed through some safety cones as he left the track.

Busch blamed his Toyota Camry, dropping a couple of expletives about the bad run. “We were running terrible and we got wrecked,” said Busch, who finished 35th.

Earlier, Daytona 500 winner Mike McDowell hit the wall on the backstretch on lap 30 and was done for the day. McDowell came in seeded 13th and finished dead last in 37th.

William Byron, the eighth seed, couldn't avoid Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman early on after the No. 48 hit the wall. On the 199th lap, Byron slammed hard into the wall entering turn one and ended his run. Byron was 34th.

And defending champion Elliott saw his race end when he hit the wall on a three-wide run and left with a flat tire and brake problems 42 laps from the end. Elliott was 31st.

► Up next: The NASCAR Cup series playoffs continue at Richmond, Virginia, on Saturday. Brad Keselowski won there in Sept. 2020 while Alex Bowman won there this past April.

F1

 Wearing the Dutch national flag like a cape, Max Verstappen felt like royalty as he stood atop the podium at his home race.

He treated his fans — including King Willem-Alexander — to a superb win at the Netherlands Grand Prix on Sunday to wrestle back the lead from Lewis Hamilton, who finished second ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

“Incredible feeling, of course, to win in front of the fans, because the king was watching with the royal family,” Verstappen said. “Just an amazing day.”

After 13 races of a thrilling Formula One title fight, the Red Bull driver is three points ahead of Hamilton, who seeks a record eighth F1 title to move one ahead of Michael Schumacher and stand alone among F1 greats.

Verstappen is chasing his first F1 crown and will take some stopping, considering he leads Hamilton 7-4 for wins and 7-3 in pole positions.

The only thing missing from Verstappen's 17th career win was a bonus point for fastest lap, which went to Hamilton.

Verstappen’s winning margin of 21 seconds over Hamilton was exaggerated because the British driver had to pit again to wrestle back that point from Bottas. A rare blip by Mercedes saw Bottas told to abort his bid for fastest lap, but it was too late and forced Hamilton to retrieve it.

After the race, a jubilant Verstappen grabbed a Dutch flag and lifted it high toward his adoring supporters as they celebrated together.

“The expectations were high and it’s never easy to fulfil that,” Verstappen said. “But I’m so happy to win here and to take the lead as well in the championship. It’s just an amazing day with the whole crowd.”

Verstappen’s devoted home fans turned the stands by the seaside town into an orange sea of bodies. Orange flares were lit, and feet were stamped as Verstappen turned to the crowd with a clenched fist after a clinical drive.

AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly placed fourth ahead of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Alpine driver Fernando Alonso.

Verstappen started from pole position for the sixth time in the past seven races, courtesy of a brilliant qualifying session.

Hamilton and Bottas were just behind, but Verstappen zoomed clear of them on the speedy 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) Zandvoort with its high-banking corners.

“The start was very important, I think we did that well,” he said. “Mercedes tried to make it difficult for us, but we countered them all the time really well.”

Team principal Christian Horner called Verstappen's drive “epic" and hugged team engineers and mechanics in the paddock.

With Red Bull having more pace, Mercedes exerted pressure with strategy.

Hamilton changed tires on Lap 21, with Red Bull covering that move by bringing Verstappen in straight away. He came out about 2 seconds ahead of Hamilton, leaving Bottas in the lead.

“It’s going to be critical to catch and pass (Bottas),” the Red Bull team told Verstappen on the radio.

They roared when Verstappen overtook Bottas on Lap 31, with Hamilton passing Bottas to move 1.5 seconds behind Verstappen at the halfway point.

Mercedes brought Hamilton in for a second tire change on Lap 40 in a bid to undercut Red Bull. It didn’t work, as Red Bull’s slick stop one lap later put Verstappen 3 seconds ahead.

“Doesn’t seem to be an advantage, (Red Bull) called our bluff,” a frustrated Hamilton said. “They’re just so fast.”

Hamilton disagreed with a team order on Lap 55 to preserve the tires rather than risk damaging them by chasing too hard.

“What, and don’t race?” asked Hamilton, who got the go-ahead to continue.

But he couldn’t get close enough to attack Verstappen, who coasted home to rapturous celebrations from his Orange Army.

He will look to carry his momentum into the Italian GP at Monza next weekend, where Hamilton again seeks a record-extending 100th win after being thwarted for three races since winning the British GP.

The seven-time F1 champion was in a gracious mood.

“What a race, what a crowd. It’s been an amazing weekend,” said Hamilton, who was applauded having been jeered by Vertappen’s fans in previous races. “Max did an incredible job so a huge congratulations to him. I gave it absolutely everything."

He leaves the Zandvoort track with fond memories.

“The last lap was one of the best parts of the race for me,” Hamilton added. “This is now one of my favorite tracks.”

Even better than Silverstone?

“I mean, the British one is naturally my favorite,” Hamilton said. “Where I think this track is probably better than Silverstone is that at Silverstone the grandstands are so far away. You need binoculars, but here they are right on the track.”

NHRA

Tim Wilkerson won the NHRA U.S. Nationals on Sunday at Lucas Oil Raceway, taking the biggest race of the season for his first Funny Car victory since 2016.

Wilkerson beat Ron Capps in the final with a 3.912-second run at 320.36 mph in a Ford Mustang. Wilkerson won for the 21st time in his career.

“We go out there and run the car and race the lane,” Wilkerson said. “Capps has used me up the last 2-3 years. He’s whooped me every time in the finals. We’ve got a good car, ran well in Brainerd and I was making sure I was going down the track today. In the finals, I ran it like it was a night run. My guys do such a terrific job and there’s a lot of emotion in this. I’m really proud of them.”

Steve Torrence won in Top Fuel, Erica Enders in Pro Stock and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Torrence, the points leader and three-time defending series champ, won for the eighth time this season and 48th overall. He beat Brittany Force with a 3.749 at 324.44.

Enders raced to her second straight U.S. Nationals victory, beating Kyle Koretsky with a 6.626 at 206.01 in a Chevrolet Camaro. She has three victories this year and 32 overall.

Krawiec topped Angelle Sampey with a 6.844 at 198.58 on a Buell for his first victory of the season and 49th overall.