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USA Today via Reuters

USA Today via Reuters

Easter Sunday, wet weather tires, and a thrilling short track night race at Richmond, what else can a NASCAR fan ask for? Well, how about the final lap drama? In the 2024 Toyota Owners 400, Denny Hamlin snagged his fifth win right at his hometown – Richmond –  with that final restart flipping the script entirely. His teammate, Martin Truex Jr, on the other hand, despite dominating most of the laps, found himself bumped to fourth place by the end.

The race kicked off the 2024 season’s first night event, lighting up Richmond in a way that’s always been a fan favorite. Despite the day starting with sketchy weather, complete with on-and-off rain, it did escalate to needing wet weather tires for rainy conditions. This was the first oval NASCAR Cup race where they rolled out wet weather tires. Even though they managed to hold tight to the track, the flip side was those rain tires wore out quicker than the regular ones. But then eventually the switch from wet tires to regular ones definitely caused some adjustment problems for the drivers.

Following a late caution, Denny Hamlin secured a win at Richmond in a dramatic finish

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Kyle Larson snagged the top spot for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway during Saturday’s qualifying. He clocked a lap at 22.438 seconds, hitting speeds of 120.332 mph, just outpacing his Hendrick Motorsports buddy, Chase Elliott. The win marked Larson’s first pole position of the season and the 17th of his Cup career. However, Denny Hamlin started at P11 only to get to the lead later on.

Larson was the one to watch on those rain tires. Starting off a bit jittery, he had a solid run until Chase Elliott snagged the lead right from under him on the second lap. But Larson wasn’t having any of it. He clawed back the lead from #9, who soon slipped to 3rd as Alex Bowman zoomed by, and then to 4th when Bubba Wallace stepped up to grab 3rd.

Twenty laps in, and we could already see a dry line peeking through in turn 4, speeding up lap times as the track dried up. As a result, NASCAR waved a competition caution at Lap 30 so teams could switch from the rain tires to slicks, signaling we were back to “dry” racetrack conditions.

Also, because the pit road was still a bit soggy, pit stops were dialed to non-competitive, keeping everyone’s spots safe and sound for the crew’s safety given the slick conditions. Pit Road was a game changer, just like we saw at Circuit of Americas and Bristol. Last year, pit road saw 11 penalties and 7 in the summer race, making it critical for drivers to watch their speed.

Josh Berry had an impressive run, kicking off at 30th and climbing 20 spots to break into the top 10 within 63 laps. Last year, Berry was runner-up in this race, filling in for Chase Elliott. But as he was duking it out for the ninth, Berry nudged Daniel Suarez, who miraculously kept it from spinning out or smashing into the wall. The move brought out the night’s second caution flag.

Kyle Larson nabbed his third stage win of the year, his first at Richmond. But his teammate, William Byron, who’s already bagged multiple wins this season, hadn’t broken into the top 10 after stage 1 on this tricky track. Just three laps past stage 1, NASCAR declared the pit road dry enough for competitive stops. Chase Elliott jumped on this, snagging two spots to crack into the top 5.

By lap 134, only seven cars, including Larson’s, hadn’t pitted since lap 75. #5 finally headed for the pits on lap 150. Alex Bowman followed suit on lap 152 but ran into trouble with a slow stop due to a snag on the right rear.

Austin Dillon was seriously miffed with his team’s game plan and didn’t hide his irritation. He’s had a rough start to the season, and his frustration was showing. Richard Childress, his team owner, had to step in with some stern advice: “Settle down, drive the car and focus here. It ain’t doing no good talking. Just focus.”

Then, trouble hit Kyle Busch, causing the third caution of the night when he smacked into the wall in Turn 1 at lap 170. It looked like Kyle’s bad day was turning into an even worse night.

Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr grabbed the lead while Kyle Larson was in the pits, but then Ty Gibbs and Ryan Preece got hit with speeding penalties on pit road. Justin Haley’s team also got flagged for jumping over the wall too soon. Some drivers, including Alex Bowman and Todd Gilliland, took the opportunity to get back on the lead lap by taking the wave around.

Ford cars were having a decent race, with Josh Berry climbing to second place as Stage 2 was wrapping up, and Noah Gragson was hovering just outside the top 10 at 11th place. And when it did wrap up, it was with a nail-biter between Martin Truex Jr and Alex Bowman, who was fighting hard just to stay on the lead lap. Truex wasn’t having any of it, edging out Bowman at the line, putting him a lap down. Bowman had to snag the free pass to circle back to the lead lap.

Meanwhile, during the pit stops, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin managed to climb two spots, slotting into second and third. However, Martin Truex Jr kept his nose in front coming off pit road, and Bowman nabbed the free pass too.

As Stage 3 unfolded, Hamlin, holding down P3, duked it out with Joey Logano but eventually slipped to P4. But, Larson started reeling in Truex Jr, closing the gap to just 0.66 seconds behind the front-runner. Martin Truex Jr, who’s had a knack for leading over 100 laps in the last eight races, led 228 laps.

On the other side of the story, Hamlin clawed back the third spot from Joey Logano. As the race neared its last 63 laps, Hamlin zoomed ahead to lead after Larson and Truex Jr dove into pit road. Exiting the pit, Larson nearly clipped Truex Jr, sparking some pit road drama but managed to edge ahead of Truex Jr. Kevin Harvick talking about the close call, said, “You gotta do what you gotta do to put yourself in position to win.” But Truex Jr didn’t let that slide and reclaimed his position in just a lap.

Martin Truex Jr’s patience was tested with lapped traffic ahead. He let his frustration out on Alex Bowman by nudging him aside with his bumper. Meanwhile, Joey Logano slipped past Larson, who was struggling with tightening tires. And before you knew it, Denny Hamlin leveraged Larson’s car trouble to drop him to fourth. Truex managed to lap Chastain and Austin Dillon, putting some distance between himself and Logano, who was closing the gap to just 0.63 seconds.

But then, with just two laps left, the race flipped on its head when Kyle Larson spun out while jockeying for fourth place with Bubba Wallace, pushing the race into overtime. In the midst of the final lap frenzy, Denny Hamlin’s pit crew worked their magic, sending him off pit road ahead of Truex and Logano! Woooshh!! That was definitely a game-changer leading to a nail-biting two-lap dash to the finish.

And then, out of nowhere, Denny Hamlin nailed the restart like a champ, snagging his 5th win at Richmond, right in his own backyard. Hamlin was upfront three times, leading a total of 16 laps. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr, who got tripped up by his own teammate, was seeing red and saw red at Kyle Larson after the race wrapped up.

Kyle Busch’s scrape with the wall brought the race to a halt with caution, tossing a wrench into everyone’s game plan

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Due to a smack in the middle of Stage 2, Kyle Busch’s car took a bit of a slide and hit the wall. Though he wrestled his car back under control, the NASCAR race officials waved the caution flag. But this wasn’t just a hiccup for Busch’s day, it shook up the strategy for a bunch of other drivers too. Richmond’s all about playing your cards right with strategy, usually splitting the stage in half rather than thirds. However, this unexpected caution from Busch’s bump mixed up other drivers’ plans big time.

And while other drivers were scrambling to come up with new game plans instead of sticking to the usual pit stop routine, Kyle Busch was the only one who turned the situation to his advantage. He ended up in a better spot than before his run-in with the wall. That caution turned out to be a lifesaver for the No. 8 team.

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Meanwhile, the HMS squad had to rethink their lead strategy, while those who pitted early had plans for a second pit stop before Stage 2 wrapped up.

Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, was none too happy over the radio, saying, “That scr*ws up, doesn’t it?” Larson had the fastest car out there, winning stage 1, but that caution threw a wrench into his race. He had to hustle through the pack, duking it out with Martin Truex Jr, Josh Berry, and Joey Logano to try and get back to the front.

The plan was for Larson and the #5 team to keep on trucking for another 20 laps despite the shake-up. After the caution threw off their rhythm, Larson only managed to climb from 6th to 4th in the last part of the stage.

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But did this scramble mess with his tires? That’s because Larson later mentioned his tires were feeling off this time around, and Daniels hinted at mismatched tire codes causing the issue. Larson finally dropped to 3rd, trailing by 0.628 seconds behind the final lap leader – Denny Hamlin.

Read More: Grateful Denny Hamlin Hopes To Repay Boss Joe Gibbs’ Life-Changing Favors by Supporting His Grandson