KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Denny Hamlin, understandably, had a range of emotions after Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 Presented by Barstool Sportsbook. He was dissapointed in finishing second, wanting to win his third race of 2022 and secure a spot in the Round of 12.
But at the same time, it was bittersweet.
Hamlin’s 23XI Racing driver, Bubba Wallace, beat him out to score his second career victory. It’s significant as Wallace notched the third win for the organization and became the first Black driver to win multiple Cup Series races.
Hamlin, obviously, was happy with 23XI’s victory. But, his competitiveness as a driver is just as important to him as a win for his organization.
“I’m really frustrated from how our first 160, 170 laps went,” Hamlin said. “I was chewing the steering wheel pretty heavily. I wanted to get there and get a win despite all the adversity that our team went through today.
“There’s no way that Bubba ever expects me to give him anything. He wants to know that he went out here and earned the win today and that it was not given to him. My lap times those last 20 laps proved that I was giving it every single bit that I had, but he just out-executed us, out-track-positioned us, and out-cared us today.”
Hamlin didn’t start off his weekend as expected, qualifying 25th and failing to earn points in Stage 1. By Lap 167, the end of Stage 2, Hamlin climbed up to sixth place. The final 96 laps stayed green and his car came to life.
With 15 laps to go, Hamlin passed Christopher Bell for second but still trailed Wallace, who led 58 of the last 68 laps, by nearly two seconds. Wallace did his best to manage the gap, but as he approached lapped traffic, his pace slowed in dirty air. With a few laps to go, Hamlin got loose and tagged the wall, which hurt the handling of his car. He couldn’t get within a reasonable distance of Wallace, who won by exactly one second.
“I knew that the moment would come,” Hamlin said on battling Wallace for the win. “Everyone has something that happens in the middle of the race that takes them off of schedule. Today was a great moment for [the No. 45] team to battle back from the back and get to the win.”
Wallace’s second Cup victory comes 11 months after winning a rain-shortened race at Talladega. Since then, Wallace’s goal was to win a regular-season race. He contended for victories at New Hampshire and Michigan but fell short both times, eventually missing the playoffs.
But when Kurt Busch suffered a concussion at Pocono in July, Wallace had a different playoff opportunity. Busch, who won the spring race at Kansas, wasn’t well enough to participate in the playoffs. He withdrew his waiver for driver’s points, but the No. 45 team remained eligible in owner’s points.
So, 23XI moved Wallace from the No. 23 to the No. 45 for the playoffs, swapping with Ty Gibbs, Busch’s replacement. Just two races after making the decision, it paid off. Wallace’s victory clinched a spot in the Round of 12 for owner’s points.
“We executed on all levels on the racetrack, on pit road, and communication was awesome today,” Wallace said. “We’re up to 18 winners, and I think it’s really cool with some of the races that we’ve been put on this year and the races that we’ve been able to capitalize on. It’s going to come down to Phoenix, and I hope we’re there winning. That would be awesome. Win us another championship.”
And for 23XI, making a run in the owner’s championship is crucial for the development of the team. The owner’s points system has a payout that’s typically more significant than driver’s points.
“We’re really trying to instill a really positive one-team mentality,” Hamlin said. “So by doing that and having an eligibility in the owner’s championship, we’re able to just pick apart and put our best pieces in each section of a race team to go out and compete at our best. Bubba Wallace was an easy choice for us. Especially the results that he has given us over the last two to three months.
“It’s just been great, and the speed is really that he has shown all year. He really just took a huge jump this year in his craft from last year, and it was a very simple decision for us. I think we knew that Bubba was going to take a lot of pride in being the flagship driver for us for these last ten.”