Denny Hamlin (11) leads Martin Truex Jr. during Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (CSP/Chris Seelman photo)

The 10-lap difference in tires ultimately became the deciding factor, despite the two JGR drivers being nearly 24 seconds back on the race track when the final round of green flag stops cycled out with 51 to go.

At that point, Kevin Harvick was the race leader over Kurt Busch, but Harvick was on the oldest tires of the frontrunners and dropped out of the top spot on lap 319, seven laps before Truex took command at the head of the field by soaring around the outside of Busch in Turns 1 and 2.

Meanwhile, Hamlin and Busch were slowly, patiently and methodically working their ways through traffic and past one car at a time, cutting their deficit by 10 seconds in 10 laps and cracking the top 10 with 40 to go.

With 27 circuits left, Hamlin soared around Austin Dillon for third, and at the 20 to go mark he was clear of Kurt Busch for second but still sat 6.2 seconds adrift of Truex.

Slower traffic in the closing stages became Truex’s Achilles heel, however. With 10 to go, he ran into the back of Kyle Larson in an attempt to get around the No. 42, seeing a 1.6 second gap evaporate into mere car lengths as Hamlin rim-rode around the speedway.

With five to go, Hamlin was within two car lengths as Truex began to falter and finally, coming to two to go the No. 78 smacked the outside wall in Turns 3 and 4 as his right front tire gave up the ghost.

Kyle Busch darted through to claim the runner-up spot in the end, but admitted afterwards that Hamlin “was the class of the field” on this particular night.

“We were fast, but not quite as fast as the (No.) 11 on the long run,” said Busch. “I could hang with him for a long, long time, but in those last 10 laps I just started losing it a little bit. I lost a little front and a little rear and overall grip. I couldn’t quite hang with him. … Denny’s one of the best here and I wish we could have gotten him, but we’ll take what we could get today.”

Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and rookie Erik Jones completed the top five finishers.

Matt Kenseth came home sixth ahead of Ryan Newman, with a dejected Truex limping home in eighth as the last car on the lead lap.

“Sometimes these things just don’t go your way and tonight not much did,” lamented Truex. “I think we could have held him off if the tire didn’t pop. If I had a little bit of clean air, I was okay and I could hold my own, but when I got back in traffic … I was just spinning out loose.”

“I wish I could have gotten it tonight but that’s the way it goes. Two laps, man. Two laps.”

Truex was still able to take some solace away from the night, however, winning the first two stages and locking up the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season championship as a result.

Counting the additional 15 playoff points earned by the regular season titlist, Truex has banked 52 bonus points – nearly a full race-worth – with one race remaining before the playoffs begin.

Larson, who tied Hamlin for the most laps led with 124, finished one lap down in 12th.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series concludes the regular season next Saturday, Sept. 9 at Richmond Int’l Raceway.

Full race results can be viewed on the next page…

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Jacob Seelman

Jacob Seelman, 24, is the founder and managing editor of 77 Sports Media and a major contributing writer for SPEED SPORT Magazine. He is studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. and also serves as the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.

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