Denny Hamlin was in no mood to be challenged on Saturday afternoon, leading for 117 of the 147 laps on Saturday until he was forced to eschew a fuel-saving run to the finish in preference to topping up on fuel which ended up allowing him to make a storming run to his third Xfinity Series win of the year and his 14th career victory in total in NASCAR's second-tier championship.
Full NASCAR Xfinity Series race results from Darlington Raceway.
Hamlin had started the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 from pole position following a lap of 28.640s (171.704mph) in the final round of qualifying on the 1.366-mile (2.198km) Darlington Raceway earlier in the day. It was his fourth pole of the year and his 20th in 152 Xfinity starts. His pole-winning lap was just 0.088s ahead of that of his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Daniel Suarez with the pair locking out the front row of the grid for the green flag.
Hamlin led through to the pre-scheduled competition caution of the afternoon on lap 26. After the first round of pit stops, Hamlin retained the lead with HScott Motorsports' Kyle Larson moving into second, but it was JR Motorsports' Kevin Harvick who had the genuine pace once the race went back to green and who assumed the lead for the first time on lap 30. Hamlin was soon able to take back control but the pair continued to duel until lap 50, at which point Hamlin finally found what he needed to start to break away.
He was still in charge on lap 72 when Todd Bodine spun out in turn 4 to trigger the first and as it turned out only real caution of the day. Hamlin won the race off pit road ahead of Harvick, Larson, Joey Logano (Penske) and series points leader Chris Buescher (Roush Fenway); however, a miscalculation meant that the JGR crew had also under-filled the car with gas. Having a better time of it on pit road was Kyle Busch who was able to receive the round of set-up adjustments he needed: having started the race from 36th place following a blend line violation in qualifying, Busch now cruised up to join Hamlin and Harvick in the top three.
With a complete absence of any further cautions - which contributed to the race being the fastest Xfinity event at Darlington in the series' history - the timing of any final green flag visit to pit lane became the crucial decision of the afternoon. Hamlin had no choice in the matter, an error in his earlier stop having left him hort-filled meaning that he was forced surrendered his long-held lead on lap 123. He was followed in by Buscher, while the two Kyles (Busch and Larson) held out until lap 129 before finally coming down pit road having seen how much faster Hamlin was able to run on a full tank of gas. Daniel Suarez picked up the lead and made the decision to try and make it to the finish on a fuel austerity strategy, but that forced the #18 to run the final laps at a relative crawl and with three laps remaining Hamlin's fuel-unfettered pace saw him roar past Suarez to pick up the lead and from there the race victory.
"You can't have dominant performances like that without a great race car, and obviously Mike Wheeler and these guys did that for me," Hamlin said, crediting his crew chief for the dominance of the #20 this weekend despite incurring some damage to the car during the race.
"I had scraped the wall when I kind of misjudged my line one time there, and had a little right-side damage," he confirmed, adding that without the enforced decision to make a stop on lap 123 he might not have made it to victory lane. "The car just stopped turning [after the damage] so I don't know whether my right-front would have made it to the end or not."
Running on fumes, Suarez was also passed by another team mate in the form of Kyle Busch, but he had just enough left in the tank to get him across the line in third place and complete a JGR sweep of the top three positions ahead of Harvick who had waited too long in vain for a caution to make his own final stop.
"Having Joe Gibbs Racing come in 1-2-3 is pretty stout, and something everybody back at the shop can be proud of," said Busch, admitting that he doubted he could have done anything to take the win from Hamlin. "I saw how fast the #20 was in the second practice, and I knew we would have our work cut out for us."
"When my team told me we were good on fuel, they were telling me to be aggressive and save fuel," Suarez added. "It's hard to save fuel when you are on the lead. You want to go, but if I go, we run out of fuel."
"We stayed out a few extra laps thinking that the caution might come out," said Harvick. "Denny had the best car."
Buescher ended the race in fifth place ahead of Logano, Larson, Landon Cassill (Roush Fenway), Regan Smith (JR Motorsport) and Ross Chastain (JD Motorsport) with Roush's Elliott Sadler just missing out on a top ten finish.
"It was a really good day for our team and we will definitely take this when it is all said and done," said Buescher. "We got it turned around here. A race like this is the reason this is my favorite place. I love this race track. It did exactly what we thought it would in the heat of the day. It got slick and we were hanging on."
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings, Buescher extends his lead to 29 points with Ty Dillon taking over second place despite finishing in 15th place at Darlington, after Chase Elliott suffered from engine valve spring issues during Saturday's race and dropped to 24th by the finish following a mid-race rough-and-tumble battle with Richard Childress Racing's Brian Scott
"It isn't over by any means," said Buescher of his promising title prospects with nine races remaining on the calendar. "There is a long way to go and we will have to race hard all the way to the end. I do like where we are at and we have been able to kind of fluctuate a little in this area this year. This is a huge testament to the #60 team and everyone back at Roush Fenway. We are in a good spot. We want to continue it for sure."
Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler, Darrell Wallace Jr. maintain their positions in the top six, while a top three finish this weekend means Daniel Suarez takes over seventh place from Brian Scott who finished in 12th place.
The next outing for the Xfinity Series is in one week's time when with the Virginia529 College Savings 250 at Richmond International Raceway on September 11.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and updated NASCAR Xfinity Series championship standings.
Get the latest NASCAR news straight to your Twitter feed! CLICK HERE to follow Crash.net's new dedicated NASCAR Twitter feed