Hamlin wins action-packed Cup race at Bristol
Let there be no doubt – the “old” Bristol Motor Speedway is back.
Denny Hamlin came out on top of the wild night of racing in Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race to record his first career victory at the half-mile bullring and give himself a much needed boost to his chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
Hamlin pulled a Bristol “bump-and-run” on race leader Carl Edwards with 40 laps to go and easily beat out Jimmie Johnson by half-a-straightaway for the victory in a race that had a huge impact on the Chase contenders.
Jeff Gordon finished third, followed by Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose.
Hamlin’s victory was the 20th of his career while moving him up to eighth in points, but more importantly with his third win of the season, put himself in position to take the top seed in the Chase standings.
“This is such a great feeling,” said Hamlin. “Darian (Grubb, crew chief) came here with a different setup and it just hauled the mail right from the get-go. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this competitive at Bristol. This is just a big win. I don’t know how else to explain it other than it’s the night race at Bristol.”
“You dream about winning at this place and I’ve come so close -- I’ve led on the last lap at this track and never won.
With the Chase seeding based on number of victories, Hamlin’s win ties him with Johnson, Brad Keselowski and defending series champion Tony Stewart for most among the Chase contenders with two races left, including the final regular season race at his “hometown” track at Richmond.
“As long as we don't have a failure or we don't get in a wreck, we can win anywhere we go,” said Hamlin.
The night proved to be all the fans hoped it would be - this being the first race on the newly resurfaced track that removed the progressive banking that had been added in 2007, which had led to several years of mediocre racing that had fans staying away from the track and clamoring for the return of the old configuration.
To that end, track owner Bruton Smith ordered the top groove ground down to even out the banking and make Bristol a one-groove racetrack again. The result was a return of the typical Bristol bullring and the fireworks that go with it - and several of the top Chase contenders going home early.
The most dramatic of the night happened on lap 333 with Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth battling for the top spot.
As the two came through turns three and four side by side, they made contact, sending both cars hard into the inside wall. Kenseth was able to continue, but Stewart’s Chevrolet was done. Stewart then expressed his displeasure by hurling his helmet at Kenseth’s car, much to the delight of the crowd.
Stewart would end up finishing in 27th-place and fall to tenth in points and in danger of falling out of the Chase field altogether.
"We weren't that great of a race car. But we were definitely faster than that after that restart,” said Stewart. “I checked-up twice to not run over him (Kenseth) and I learned my lesson there; I'm going to run over him every chance I've got from now 'til the end of the year, every chance I've got.”
While it was a bad points night for Stewart, for Hamlin it was just what he needed.
Coming into Saturday night’s race tenth in points right behind Stewart, Hamlin led five times for 70 laps, and was leading was the caution flag waved on lap 415 to bring him to pit road for his final pit stop.
Edwards was among many of the leaders that stayed out and assumed the lead ahead of Brian Vickers, Johnson and Ambrose with Hamlin restarting in eighth.
Under green, Edwards immediately came under attack from Brian Vickers, who nearly pulled off the pass for the lead with 47 laps to go before making contact with Edwards and sliding up the racetrack, making a spectacular save to stay in the top five.
But the damage was done as Hamlin moved into second and began chasing down Edwards. Hamlin, running on tires 90 laps fresher, began dogging Edwards over the next ten laps before finally nudging him out of the way coming through turns one and two on lap 460.
Edwards came right back with a cross-over move and pulled even with Hamlin on the front straight, but Hamlin again slid by on the outside and cleared Edwards as they entered the backstretch.
Hamlin then set sail as Edwards began to freefall back through the field as his tires went away in the final laps, eventually finishing 22nd.
“I knew I had to do everything I could just to slide up in front of (Edwards),” said Hamlin. “It was my only chance. I knew if there was any chance of us having a caution, I was going to get on the inside because he was going to take the outside so I had to take the lead as soon as possible.
“That’s the way Bristol racing is supposed to be -- rooting and gouging.”
Johnson meanwhile locked himself into the Chase field with the runner-up finish, as did Sprint Cup points leader Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
“It was a great night,” said Johnson. “I wish we could have finished one spot better but it was a very solid effort. I'm really proud of this whole race team and am so very proud that we clinched today and am glad that we locked-down the Chase. That's something that I'm very proud of. We've made it each year. And now it's time to get to work.”
Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard rounded out the top ten.
* Denotes Rookie
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