Denny Hamlin is very well aware of the history of Darlington Speedway. This weekend, he made a little of his own.
Hamlin edged teammate Kyle Busch on a restart with 20 laps to go and held on for the win in the SHOWTIME Southern 500 here on Saturday. One day earlier, Hamlin also edged Busch late in the race to win the NASCAR Nationwide Series race.
It was Hamlin's first ever weekend sweep and the first at Darlington since Mark Martin did it in 1993.
Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win was Hamlin's first win at the 'Track Too Tough to Tame' but it's the fourth time he's finished in the top-10 in five Cup races at Darlington. The win puts Hamlin in the elite company of many of the drivers that he grew up idolizing.
"I was looking at that trophy in victory lane and the faces that are on there are just unbelievable," Hamlin said. "Mine's definitely going to stick out like a sore thumb but hopefully one day it's a face that fits in with those guys."
The 29-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver reflected back to his memories of watching Bill Elliott win here 25 years ago.
"I can remember Bill Elliott winning the million dollar race here," Hamlin said. "I was a huge of fan of his in 1985. I was only five years old but he was my driver. He was my guy and I'll never forget that -- him winning here at Darlington. It was as big for me now as probably what it was for him back then."
Hamlin started eighth and spent most of the day running in the top-10. He took the lead for the first time on lap 141 and led a total of 104 laps.
"We had just a really good car," Hamlin said. "I knew right from the first run of the day we had a very strong race car. At that point it's just all about conserving your equipment for the end of the race.
"We chose to take four tires more than a lot of guys did during the course of the day, so you saw us kind of go back to 10th, eighth at times, but we always kept good tires on the race car all the time. That set us up for a charge to the front. From there, it was clear sailing. (Crew chief) Mike (Ford) did a great job of adjusting on it. All day we went back and forth with it. He got it right where it needed to be on that last run."
Hamlin has three wins and four top-five finishes in the past six races to move from 15th to sixth in the championship standings.
He had knee surgery six weeks ago but judging from his performance at the track, the rehabilitation isn't having any negative effect on him.
"I can't tell you how excited I am about us winning right now because I know what our team is capable of by the time we hit Chase time," Hamlin said. "We're running pretty much last year's cars for the most part. We're just kind of easing our way into it. We didn't expect to have the success. We thought we could contend for race wins, maybe get one here or there the first 12. I think that it's very encouraging for me that we're winning right now under the circumstances."
Jamie McMurray set a new track record in qualifying and had another terrific day on Saturday. He was scored in the top five throughout the race and finished second for the second time in the past three races.
McMurray said that it was tough to catch up to Hamlin in the closing laps.
"The biggest thing when you're up front is the first two corners you can put five seconds on the other guys. It's just amazing coming off turn two how far ahead you can be in one corner," McMurray said. "It got pretty slick tonight, I felt like and my car was really loose. As the run would go on - it wasn't the old Darlington - but it still got pretty slick and was easy to get up into the wall. It's still a really fun track to race on. It's very unique."
Kurt Busch held on for a third place finish while Jeff Gordon led a race-high 110 laps but slipped back in the final 25 laps to finish fourth.
"When we first started off tonight, I thought we were in for a long battle," said Busch, who claimed his fifth top-19 finish in 14 races here. "Our car was loose to start off. We were very loose at Richmond to start off. We figured out last week what we had wrong. I just thought we had the same thing happen to us again. I tried to keep it off the fence, just kind of nurse it through each of its pit stops early on. I didn't have much for Hamlin and McMurray. I did at certain points, but not at the end. Those guys had it just right. For us to battle all night and finish third at the Lady in Black, we'll take it.
Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top five while point's leader Kevin Harvick finished sixth.
Jimmie Johnson had a rough day. On Lap 180, A.J. Allmendinger had a brake failure and collected the four-time champion into a wreck that destroyed both cars. Allmendinger explained, "... when that yellow came out I went to hit the brakes to slow down and the brake rotors exploded."
Both drivers were fine but Johnson's third DNF of the season moved him 110 points behind Harvick for the lead. It was the sixth of 11 cautions in the race.
"I'm fine -- I still haven't seen where he came from," Johnson said after leaving the infield medical centre. "All I know is at the last minute I saw a green bumper and it was a hard hit."