Denny Hamlin wins at Bristol, while Matt DiBenedetto steals the show

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - AUGUST 17: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 17, 2019 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Rare in the history of motor racing can an instance be found where a driver who wins a race feels bad for doing so.  That however was the case Saturday night for Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin led the last 10 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway overcoming several issues including damage from contact on the track while leading, and a loose wheel that forced a green flag pit stop, to win his fourth race of the season. Yet, in victory lane his first words were directed at the driver who he had just beat and finished in second.

“I am so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and Mike Wheeler,” Hamlin said while standing on the start-finish line. “I hate it. I know how much a win would mean to that team.”

It was DiBenedetto who was that second-place driver. A Cinderella story in the making in the final laps, DiBenedetto, who found out this week that he would be out of a job at the end of the season, took the lead late in the going, led a race high 93 laps and looked to be on the brink of the biggest NASCAR stories in years.

Hamlin simply just had the better car.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led from the pole but contact with Jimmie Johnson, who was trying to avoid going a lap down, on lap 80 forced him into the pits for repairs and sent him out in 11th.  He would then have a loose wheel on lap 181 just after pit stops again forcing him into the pits under green.  He would lose two laps; then while fighting back to the front was told that he might have loose lug nuts. During the stop his Toyota suffered damage when the rear tire carrier for the No. 20 of Erik Jones just behind had the tire he was carrying hit Hamlin’s car.

Hamlin spent the rest of the race clawing back forward, a run that culminated in the pass of DiBenedetto and the lead with 10 laps to go. Hamlin did what he had to do to win, but still thought of DiBenedetto when it was over.

“I have to give it 110% for FedEx and my whole team,” Hamlin said.  “Just sorry.”

DiBenedetto also had a fast car all weekend. He was running near the front all race long, led more laps than he ever has and came home with a career high second place.  Even in defeat, DiBenedetto kept his head held high.

“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, for this team, for them giving me this opportunity,” he said.  “I’m just thankful that they gave me this opportunity, Toyota, Procore, Dumont Jets.  I’m so thankful.”

In the final laps while fighting though lapped traffic DiBenedetto made contact with Ryan Newman who was trying to stay on the lead lap. That contact left the DiBenedetto machine with slight damage and perhaps slowed him down enough to allow Hamlin to catch him.

“I’m sad,” DiBenedetto said.  “We got tight after the deal with Newman when he came up into us.  All of a sudden it got really tight after that.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – AUGUST 17: Denny Hamlin(L), driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, speaks with Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #95 Toyota Express Maintenance Toyota, in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 17, 2019 in Bristol, Tennessee. DiBenedetto was passed by Hamlin in the closing laps and finished runner-up. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“Congrats to Denny,” he added.  “He raced hard.  I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid.  To be racing door‑to‑door with him at Bristol, in front of a great group of fans…”

“I’ll try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week,” he said fighting back tears.  “I just want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come.  I love it.  I love the opportunity.  I’m not done yet.”

Brad Keselowski who led 91 laps was third, Kyle Busch fourth and Chase Elliott fifth.

The race for the Playoff bubble tightened even further with just two races left before the field is set.  Newman is above the cutline in 15th after his solid 11th place run only losing that one lap.

Daniel Suarez finished 8th Saturday moving up two spots and now holds the 16th and final place. Clint Bowyer rallied from a solo spin on lap 244 to finish 7th and is two points below the cutoff in 17th.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson however, lost the most thanks to an early run in with Austin Dillon on lap 79 left him with damage that he was never able to regain. Johnson finished 19th four laps down and leaves Bristol 18th in the standings 26 points out of 16th.

Kyle Larson who won stage 1 was sixth, and Kurt Busch who won stage 2 was ninth behind Bowyer and Suarez.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series takes its final week of the season off before heading to Darlington for the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.

Matt DiBenedetto will still be looking for a ride for 2020, though his resume now looks a bit better.

“Something will come open,” he said.  “It’s going to happen.  I’m here to win.  Something’s going to come open.

“Thankful for my wife and fans for sticking with me.  It’s been a tough journey, a hard week.”

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race Results Bass Pro Shops Night Race

Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol, Tennessee

Saturday, August 17, 2019

1. (1)  Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 500.

2. (7)  Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 500.

3. (13)  Brad Keselowski, Ford, 500.

4. (31)  Kyle Busch, Toyota, 500.

5. (6)  Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 500.

6. (2)  Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 500.

7. (20)  Clint Bowyer, Ford, 500.

8. (18)  Daniel Suarez, Ford, 499.

9. (4)  Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 499.

10. (12)  Ryan Blaney, Ford, 499.

11. (14)  Ryan Newman, Ford, 499.

12. (17)  Daniel Hemric #, Chevrolet, 499.

13. (3)  Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 498.

14. (22)  Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 498.

15. (10)  Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 497.

16. (11)  Joey Logano, Ford, 497.

17. (29)  Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 497.

18. (23)  Ryan Preece #, Chevrolet, 497.

19. (30)  Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 496.

20. (24)  Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 496.

21. (21)  William Byron, Chevrolet, 496.

22. (9)  Erik Jones, Toyota, 495.

23. (25)  Paul Menard, Ford, 495.

24. (26)  Corey LaJoie, Ford, 494.

25. (32)  Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 490.

26. (39)  Ross Chastain(i), Chevrolet, 490.

27. (27)  Matt Tifft #, Ford, Suspension, 487.

28. (36)  JJ Yeley, Ford, 485.

29. (5)  Aric Almirola, Ford, 482.

30. (34)  Quin Houff, Chevrolet, 478.

31. (38)  Kyle Weatherman(i), Chevrolet, 474.

32. (33)  BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, Front Hub, 410.

33. (15)  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, DVP, 391.

34. (19)  Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 387.

35. (35)  Josh Bilicki(i), Chevrolet, Fatigue, 373.

36. (16)  David Ragan, Ford, Accident, 371.

37. (28)  Michael McDowell, Ford, Accident, 368.

38. (37)  Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, Clutch, 269.

39. (8)  Kevin Harvick, Ford, Clutch, 244.

Average Speed of Race Winner:  94.531 mph.

Time of Race:  2 Hrs, 49 Mins, 9 Secs. Margin of Victory:  .502 Seconds.

Caution Flags:  8 for 61 laps.

Lead Changes:  23 among 10 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   D. Hamlin 0;D. Hamlin 1-14;K. Larson 15-23;D. Hamlin 24-38;K. Larson 39-45;D. Hamlin 46-83;K. Larson 84-129;B. Keselowski 130;C. Elliott 131-163;K. Harvick 164-191;B. Keselowski 192;M. Truex Jr. 193-244;K. Busch 245-253;K. Busch 254-264;B. Keselowski 265-349;K. Busch 350;B. Keselowski 351;K. Busch 352;B. Keselowski 353-354;K. Busch 355-365;B. Keselowski 366;K. Busch 367-372;E. Jones 373-395;M. DiBenedetto 396-488;D. Hamlin 489-500.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  Matt DiBenedetto 1 time for 93 laps; Brad Keselowski 6 times for 91 laps; Denny Hamlin 4 times for 79 laps; Kyle Larson 3 times for 62 laps; Martin Truex Jr. 1 time for 52 laps; Chase Elliott 1 time for 33 laps; Kyle Busch 5 times for 30 laps; Kevin Harvick 1 time for 28 laps; Erik Jones 1 time for 23 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 9 laps.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 42,9,19,4,95,12,20,2,1,10

Stage #2 Top Ten: 1,41,6,18,24,9,20,2,8,19


Greg Engle