Denny Hamlin saved his best effort for the stretch run in Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and his persistence paid off with the No. 11 team’s third win of the season in 24 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
“It’s Bristol — I don’t know what to say, man,” Hamlin said as he crossed the finish line. “I’m so damn happy.”
But it wasn’t the same Bristol that played to half-empty grandstands in March. On the contrary, grinding two degrees of banking off the outside lane — a project orchestrated after the March race — helped produce an abundance of action, but perhaps not in the way track owner Bruton Smith intended.
After a heated battle, Hamlin passed Carl Edwards for the lead on Lap 462 but didn’t clear the No. 99 Ford until both drivers traded shots. As Edwards faded, Hamlin pulled away to beat Jimmie Johnson to the checkered flag by 1.103 seconds.
Jeff Gordon ran third, followed by Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose.
Greg Biffle (19th Saturday), Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th) clinched berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
On the newly ground surface at the .533-mile short track, the race featured 13 cautions and plenty of emotion, as drivers began to rubber-in the outside groove and discovered it was the fastest way around.
To Hamlin, the racing was similar to the old Bristol — just that cars ran single-file in the top groove instead of on the bottom of the track.
“It’s just a different kind of racing,” said Hamlin, who won the 20th Cup race of his career and the record 200th for the No. 11. “There’s nothing (Smith is) going to do that’s going to make us run the bottom, if that’s not the fastest way around the track. But it was the same thing — we were all running in a line. You’re just waiting for the next guy to screw up to get around (him).
“That’s what we had to do with the old Bristol, and that’s exactly how we had to race today. The slide job was an option to pass, which won us the race. I don’t think we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You just saw a bunch of cars in line, waiting for someone to get knocked out of the way or to mess up.”
There were plenty of flare-ups to punctuate the racing. Juan Pablo Montoya wrecked his old nemesis, Ryan Newman, and dropped him out of a provisional wild-card spot. Brad Keselowski’s Dodge with the throwback paint scheme pinballed between three different cars before wrecking.
Contact from Regan Smith sent Danica Patrick hard into the frontstretch wall.
“The pace was fast,” said Gordon, who inched closer to a wild-card spot in the Chase but still trails Kyle Busch by 16 points for the second of two positions. “You’d fly up around the top like that with all that rubber down. . . . It was fast, and it was intense.
“The only way you could pass was to just dive on in there and slide-job the guy, and sometimes you don’t complete that. And when you don’t complete that, it definitely will get you frustrated and (you) lose positions, and if you hit the guy, it’s going to fire him up.”
No wreck was more significant to the outcome of the race — or to the Cup standings, for that matter — than Tony Stewart’s dust-up with Matt Kenseth on Lap 332. Stewart had the faster car, but Kenseth had the race lead, and their cars collided as they powered through Turn 4, with Stewart to the outside.
Repeated contact between the cars turned both sideways as they crossed the start/finish line. Kenseth’s Ford careened into the inside wall at the end of the frontstretch, with Stewart’s Chevrolet slamming into Kenseth’s car.
Kenseth’s car was wounded, but he drove away from the wreck. Stewart climbed from his car and slung his helmet squarely into the nose of Kenseth’s car.
“We weren’t that great of a race car, but we were definitely faster than that (Kenseth’s car) after that restart (on Lap 329),” Stewart said while his car spent 25 laps in the garage for repairs. “I checked up twice to not run over him, and I learned my lesson there.
“I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now till the end of the year — every chance I’ve got.”
Stewart finished 27th and dropped a spot to 10th in the standings, 16 points ahead of Kasey Kahne in 11th. If Stewart should drop out of the top 10, he won’t get bonus points for his three victories when the Chase starts.
Kenseth finished 25th and fell two spots to fourth in points, but he clinched at least a wild-card berth in the Chase.
The wreck with Smith on Lap 434 relegated Patrick to 29th in her fourth Cup start. Patrick, who was sandbagged by a sneaker in last week’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Montreal, was running on the lead lap in the top 20 before the other shoe finally dropped.