CONCORD, N.C. – Denny Hamlin intently watched the qualifying event for NASCAR's annual All-Star race and noticed, as has been the case in recent years, the driver out front in the waning laps was almost certainly guaranteed the win.
As Greg Biffle led all 20 laps of the Sprint Showdown to earn a spot in the All-Star race, Hamlin understood that nothing about NASCAR's current rules package has changed. To win the $1 million prize on Saturday night, he'd have to be the leader exiting Turn 2 on the first lap of the final segment.
Hamlin wasn't alone in that theory.
With clean air so critical in this current rules package, chasing down the leader during a short run is next to impossible. The 110-lap All-Star race concludes with a 10-lap sprint to the finish and it's proven time and again to not be enough laps for a challenger to mount a formidable attempt at the win.
"The final 10 laps, you've got to be on the front row," Hamlin said. "Aero means so much with these cars nowadays that the person out front just has a huge advantage. I knew once we got cleared going into turn one, we had a great shot."
And that's how Hamlin earned what he considers the biggest win of his career. His victory in the dash-for-cash at Charlotte Motor Speedway gave team owner Joe Gibbs his first All-Star race victory in 24 years of trying, and it was the first for manufacturer Toyota.
He wasn't alone in his belief that he had to be out front for that final restart, which came after a mandatory four-tire pit stop for the entire field. Cars entered pit road in the order of their average finishing position over the first four segments of the race, and Hamlin was sixth overall.
But his Joe Gibbs Racing team had won the pole earlier Saturday night, and he was pitting in the first stall on the track. The No. 11 crew, considered one of the top over-the-wall groups in the Sprint Cup Series, used a rapid pit stop to get Hamlin rolling and he held off Brad Keselowski in the race back to the track.
Keselowski rolled off second, but was flagged for speeding and had to forfeit that position. Had he not sped, he would have tried to beat Hamlin on the restart to control the final 10 laps.
He was unrepentant about speeding.
"Whoever gets the clean air with this format and this rules package is going to drive away," Keselowski said. "I knew when I came out of my pit stall and the 11 was pulling out with me that I either beat him to that line or lose the race.
"I told my crew chief I'd rather go down swinging than take a strike and wonder what might have been. I swung and missed."
Ultimately, Hamlin only had to hold off Kevin Harvick, who had the speed in his car to make a run at the win.
Harvick closed to within half a car length of Hamlin, but Hamlin defended Harvick's charge by moving into the center of the track as Harvick tried to control the high line. The move proved the difference in holding off Harvick.
"Thought we were in a good spot. I had committed to the center of the corner and just really lost the front of the car up the racetrack, had to get out of the throttle, lost five or six spots," said Harvick.
But Harvick, who has been consistently fast for 17 months now, felt good about the way his car performed and was one of the few drivers encouraged to return for next week's Coca-Cola 600.
Only the longest race on the NASCAR schedule could very much turn into a single-file snooze-fest with meaningful passes at the front of the field at a minimum.
Yet NASCAR has indicated its 2016 rules package will likely look very similar to the current package — meaning unless something dramatic happens soon, this is the style of racing fans and drivers will see for at least another full season.
That seems to be the preference of team owners, who are forced to spend money with every change.
"There's been good communication between the car owners and NASCAR — before we make a change, we look at the costs associated with it," said Roger Penske. "The main thing is we've got to have enough time. That's where they were if they weren't able to make a decision by end of May, early June and let you know six months ahead of time, it's pretty hard to execute."