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Hamlin scores the first Coca-Cola 600

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Denny Hamlin celebrates on Victory Street after winning the Coke 600. (HHP/Chris Owens)

More than five hours after the green flag and more than 16 years after his first Coca-Cola 600 start, Denny Hamlin finally exited Charlotte Motor Speedway in victory over Memorial Day weekend.

Hamlin took pole for the 63rd edition of NASCAR’s toughest test of man and machine on Sunday – and after an action-packed, memorable race from start to finish, the veteran driver added one of racing’s most valuable victories to his resume.

“It’s very special,” Hamlin said. “That’s the last big one that’s not on my resume. It meant so much.

Man I just can’t thank this whole FedEx team enough.

“I’ve never won the Coke 600. That means a lot. Man we haven’t been very good all day. We were just in the right place at the right time. What a fight there.”

The race featured 31 lead changes over 413 laps, with the favorite ranging from Stage 1 winner Chase Elliott to Stage 2 winner Daniel Suarez to Stage 3 winner Ross Chastain. Defending race champion Kyle Larson appeared poised to take home his second straight Bruton Smith Trophy, but Chase Briscoe spun trying to pass Larson on the final laps.

At the ensuing restart, Larson pulled forward before Austin Dillon, the 2017 race winner, moved up from fourth place to challenge Larson as the leaders neared the white flag. Hamlin dove under both drivers as Dillon slid into Larson and the two set off a multi-car crash that spawned another yellow flag.

Hamlin took his chance at the restart. He withstood a dying challenge from teammate Kyle Busch to claim his first Coke 600 win with an interim crew chief.

Joe Gibbs Racing engineer Sam McAulay called the shots for Hamlin in pit number 11 when regular crew chief Chris Gabehart was suspended in the first of four races due to a rule violation at Dover Motor Speedway.

“It means a lot and something I’ve been worrying about all day,” Hamlin said. “One thing I worried about all day was just communicating with Sam (McCauley), I’m so used to Chris (Gabehart) and then having two very young and new guys for us over the wall, it worried me though. They did a fabulous job of running the race, knowing when to push and when to make a smart stop and they honestly stuck with me and gave me a chance.”

The change in personnel did not disrupt Hamlin or his team’s positive momentum, with Hamlin securing his second consecutive top five finish for the first time this season.

Busch completed a 1-2 sweep for JGR. Two-time race winner Kevin Harvick was third, Chase Briscoe was fourth and Christopher Bell, another JGR rider, was fifth.

Tyler Reddick was sixth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. seventh, Michael McDowell eighth, Larson ninth and Alex Bowman tenth.

None of the top three stage winners finished better than Chastain’s 15th place, damaged by the crash involving Larson and Dillon. Chastain, the winner of Friday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series North Carolina Education Lottery 200 race in Charlotte, led Sunday’s 153-lap race at the highest level.

Elliott’s hopes of his famous family’s first Coca-Cola 600 win ended just before halftime when he was knocked out in a multi-car crash just before the finish of stage two. Elliott led 86 of the 188 laps he completed.

While Hamlin waited most of the evening – leading just 15 laps – Suarez replaced Elliott as the favorite at the front. The Trackhouse Racing driver sped through the field for 46 laps before a crash on lap 346 eliminated Suarez and overturned Chris Buescher’s car in a wild accident. Buescher exited his car under his own power and was checked and released from the Infield Care Center.

Hamlin found himself in the driver’s seat as the laps drew to a close, largely by avoiding the trouble that had befallen so many of the competitors.

The win was Hamlin’s 48th career and his first points-paying win in the NASCAR Cup Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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