On a night where the ultimate underdog story almost played out, Denny Hamlin had the final say at Saturday’s Bass Pro Shop NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Matt DiBenedetto’s almost improbable run nearly came to fruition, leading for a race-best 93 laps late in the race. But a hard-charging Hamlin passed him with 11 laps left, ending DiBenedetto’s dream run and continuing his impressive summer surge.
“This race is special,” said Hamlin of his fourth victory of the season and second victory at Bristol. “You see how many people are in the stands, the atmosphere was just electric. You could just tell that this weekend is big. My crew chief (Chris Gabehart) encouraged me to not take one lap off. I definitely can say I did not take one lap off. It was obviously great to come back from two laps down.”
Hamlin apologized to DiBenedetto during his post-race interview, as the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota’s fabulous run Saturday night capped off a wildly emotional week that included his team telling him he won’t have a ride in 2020.
That story tugged on the Bristol fans’ heartstrings and they gave him a rousing ovation following the race. DiBenedetto tried to hold off Hamlin down the stretch, but contact with Ryan Newman late in the race affected his car just enough for Hamlin to gain the advantage in the waning moments.
“This team gave it everything they had,” DiBenedetto said. “I wanted it so bad and we were so close. After the damage with Newman trying to get around him, I got tight. It flipped the switch and it got significantly tighter after that. Denny was strong and before that I thought I could I could hold him off. But I’m just thankful for this team. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to have this performance. I wanted that win, but it’s coming.”
As improbable and storybook as DiBenedetto’s win would have been, Hamlin carved up his own memorable tale by virtue of overcoming his fair share of adversity to get his fourth win of 2019 and second at Bristol.
The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing led 67 of the first 83 laps, but his night was rough and tumble from there. There was a glancing blow with Jimmie Johnson on lap 80, which cost him the lead and Stage 1 victory. It also set him back two laps, but Hamlin worked hard to get back in the mix.
Hamlin had to head to the pits twice under green for different issues, including on Lap 380 for a loose wheel, but he continued to charge. He started the last restart on Lap 387 in ninth and then promptly moved through the field in workmanlike fashion.
He continued to close in on DiBenedetto, especially after the popular California driver made contact with Ryan Newman. Hamlin finally chased down DiBenedetto, capturing one of the most satisfying victories of his standout career.
“This win is gratifying because you like the races where you’re making the charge at the end to win the race,” Hamlin said. “To march to the front and make that pass near the end, that really makes me feel good.”
Brad Keselowski finished third in the Bristol thriller, leading for 91 laps over the final two stages, while Kyle Busch, who started 31st and managed to lead for 30 laps, took fourth. Chase Elliott ended in fifth, while Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top 10.
DiBenedetto’s late run grabbed the spotlight, as the driver who dressed up as Rocky during pre-race introductions nearly saw the movie come to life on Saturday.
He passed Kyle Busch and then Erik Jones on Lap 396 on a pair of brilliant moves, but he couldn’t quite hold off Hamlin, but he sure made it interesting. He was side-by-side with Hamlin with 12 laps remaining as the two cars made contact, praising the job Hamlin did down the stretch.
“I tried to get around Newman on the outside and I was there, and he came up into my left front and I got the damage, and it was pretty bad,” DiBenedetto said. “I lost a couple tenths a lap, which is huge here. I was a little tight, but I think I could have held Denny off there at the end.
“It was just hard racing. That’s Bristol. Denny was strong and to be racing door-to-door with him at Bristol for the win with a few laps left to go, (it’s) crazy. I’m sad I didn’t win, but it’s still something I’ll remember and build on.”
Hamlin certainly won’t forget the weekend, either. He won the pole on Friday during Pinty’s Qualifying and showed the potential of the car with a thrilling early-race duel with Larson.
The mid-race troubles could have easily zapped that momentum, but Hamlin lauded the adjustments his team has continued to make this year. The Bristol win gave Hamlin six straight top-5 finishes as he builds his championship resume, and Hamlin believes the sky is the limit after the team’s latest triumph on Saturday.
“We can just win every single week and really the last two months, it’s just been incredible to see the adjustments we’ve made as the season’s gone on, and we just keep getting better,” Hamlin said. “Chris has done a good job keeping me honest and keeping me focused. We’ve really worked hard to get in this position. I think on performance, we’re in a very, very good place right now.”