Could this finally be the year that Denny Hamlin wins the title that has eluded him his entire career? The Joe Gibbs Racing driver made a strong statement to that effect Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin led the final 135 laps and held off Kyle Larson by 2.4 seconds to score his third win of the season, and his third at Bristol.
“Man, everybody likes a winner, right?” Hamlin said. “Can’t thank this whole FedEx team enough. They’ve really kicked ass this whole first round. Really amazing how our team has been. So happy about the way we’re running. Can’t wait to keep going.”
He will now move on to the Round of 12 in the Playoffs and have yet another shot at a title. In his 18-year career as a fulltime Cup driver, Hamlin has finished third in the season ending points 4 times and was second in 2010.
Behind Larson, Christopher Bell was third. After starting from his third consecutive pole Bell led the most laps on the night, 187, but came up short of the win for the third time after sweeping the Stages in a race.
“It definitely is a run to be proud of,” Bell said. “But I’ll be honest, this was probably our best race we’ve had in a while and probably the most disappointed I’ve been in a while. Just got a little bit away from us there in the last half of the race. That is how it goes sometimes.”
Chris Buescher was fourth, and Ty Gibbs who led 102 laps was fifth.
The elimination race saw Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Michael McDowell, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. out of the Playoffs.
McDowell made the Playoffs thanks to his dominating win on the Indianapolis Road Course. Saturday night McDowell ran strong finishing Stage 2 sixth. Even though he finished sixth in the race, his Cinderella Playoff story ended.
“’Tonight it wasn’t enough,” McDowell said. “We were in a must-win situation. Still proud of everyone at Front Row Motorsports. Not quite fast enough to run with the top two or three guys, but pretty good.”
Joey Logano saw his chance to defend his title come to an end on lap 262. After struggling most of the race and sometimes fighting just to stay on lead lap, Corey LaJoie got loose and spun down the track then back up across and into the outside wall just in front of Logano who crashed into him hard. The same crash also swept up Erik Jones and Ryan Newman. But it was Logano whose Ford had a broken rear suspension. He would finish the night 34 and was eliminated.
Harvick never had the speed and like his season struggled all race long, falling five laps down. In his final year as a fulltime driver in the Cup series Harvick, who has yet to win a race this year, was out of his final NASCAR Playoffs finishing 29th.
“We’ve been like that all year,” Harvick said. “We’ve been hit or miss. Tonight we just missed by a mile.”
This year’s Daytona 500 winner Stenhouse Jr. was a longshot all season long. Despite his 10th place finish, it came as little surprise that Stenhouse was among those who didn’t advance.
“We executed in the race really well,” Stenhouse said. “But just didn’t execute on Friday good enough to put us starting up front and get some stage points early. That’s kind of where we’ve been lacking, I would say most of the year – just with qualifying and being able to set ourselves up for the beginning stages of the race. I’m proud of the effort and another top-10 finish.”
Chase Elliott was seventh, Brad Keselowski eighth. William Byron, who is the top seed going into the round of 12 was ninth.
Thanks in part to Logano’s misfortune, Bubba Wallace was able to salvage 14th just ahead of his teammate Tyler Reddick giving 23XI Racing two cars in the second round of the Playoffs in that team’s short history.
“I’m mentally exhausted. I’m wore out,” Wallace said. “Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That’s what you got to do. We know next week’s a reset. We just got to go out and have some fun, work our asses off.
“Thank you to the ones that believe in me. Keep it going. Yeah, on to next week.”
Despite going two laps down and smacking the wall, Martin Truex Jr. was able to survive and move through to the next round seeded second with a 19th place finish.
“It feels really good,”’ Truex said. “I don’t know that this round could have gone any worse. To have to come to Bristol and get through – we knew it was going to be tough. This has not been a very good place for us.
“We had a decent Bass Pro Toyota tonight. Just got behind on track position. Got a lap down, and then we were kind of stuck. We stuck with it, and just tried to go as hard as we could all night, and luckily it all played out. Definitely excited about the next round and the reset, hopefully we will keep from having so much bad luck.”
The race’s start, which had already been moved up an hour, was delayed nearly thirty minutes by rain, then again for another light shower on lap 127 that led to a 14 and half minute red flag.
After scoring his 51st career victory Hamlin is now the winningest driver without a title. But with his win Hamlin and his team now seem to have the confidence moving into the next round, where he is seeded third, to perhaps finally win the NASCAR Cup championship that has eluded him to this point in his career.
“It’s our year,” Hamlin said. “I just feel like we’ve got it all put together. We’ve got the speed every single type of racetrack. Nothing to stop us at this point.”
The Round of 12 begins next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway where Tyler Reddick is the defending champion.
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