In the first two races of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Denny Hamlin had a winning car, only to see circumstances keep him out of the win column.
On Saturday night in the Round of 12 Playoffs cutoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hamlin finally parked the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in victory lane.
Hamlin took the lead away from JGR teammate Ty Gibbs on lap 359, and held the point the rest of the way to score the victory in “Thunder Valley.”
“Everybody likes a winner right?” Hamlin said in response to the mixture of boos he received from the crowd as he climbed from his car in front of the grandstands on the front stretch. “I can’t thank this whole FedEx team enough.”
It marks the third win of the season for Hamlin, the 51st of his series career, and his third at Bristol. The win came after rebounding from a pit road speeding penalty on lap 71. In the end, he led 142 laps on the night.
“Just amazing how good our team has been,” said Hamlin. “So happy about the way we are running. I can’t wait to keep going.”
The victory also gives Hamlin and his JGR team a lot of momentum heading into the Round of 12.
“It’s our year. I just feel like we’ve got to put it all together,” Hamlin said. “We’ve got the speed at every different type of race track. Nothing to stop us at this point.”
Kyle Larson, who started the race dead last, raced through the field to contend for the win. In the end, he had to settle for a second place finish.
“I feel like we had the second-best car and we finished second with it,” said Larson. “We just didn’t have the pace that Denny (Hamlin) had. He was really, really fast and got through traffic really well. I thought maybe his balance was fading when we got to traffic, but as soon as he got clear of them, he took back off. Just didn’t quite have the balance that I needed to really charge through the corners and be aggressive on the throttle and exit. We made it better on that final run, but just not quite enough.”
For the first half of the race, it looked like Hamlin’s JGR teammate, Christopher Bell, would be the man to beat. After starting from the pole, Bell led the most laps on the night (187), winning the first two race segments in the process. But after losing positions on pit road after the end of segment 2, Bell never recovered the top spot. He finished the night in third.
“I just kind of lost the handle on it, the same time we lost the track position,” said Bell. “The 11 (Denny Hamlin) was fast. Whenever he got up front, he just drove away. Disappointing to be good at the wrong time, but at least we got out here with a lot of points for this Rheem Camry.”
Playoff driver Chris Buescher finished in fourth, with Gibbs – who led 102 laps on the night – came home in fifth.
Michael McDowell, Dawsonville, Georgia’s Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, William Byron, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top 10.
Hamlin now moves on Round of 12, along with top 10 finishers Larson, Bell, Buescher, Keselowski, and Byron.
While Hamlin celebrated the win and got ready to move forward in the Playoffs, four drivers saw their title hopes come to an end.
Defending series champion Joey Logano was caught up in a multi-car crash on lap 263, triggered when Corey LaJoie spun after a restart, gathering up Logano, Justin Haley, Ty Dillon, and Ryan Newman in the process. Logano’s car was left with right rear suspension damage, eliminating him from the race and from the Playoffs.
Logano becomes the first defending title winner to be eliminated in the first round of the Playoffs.
“It’s what happens.” said Logano, who was credited with a 34th place finish. “You don’t go fast enough, you’re in the back and they wreck in front of you at Bristol on a restart and you’re going so fast that you can’t whoa up or turn or do anything and you get kind of pile drove into the wreck. It’s our own fault.”
Joining Logano below the cutline was Kevin Harvick, who struggled with handling all night and finished five laps down in 29th.
“We’ve been like that all year,” said Harvick. “We’ve been hit or miss and tonight we just missed by a mile.”
McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. needed nothing short of a win to make the cut. Both turned in strong runs, with McDowell finishing sixth and Stenhouse, Jr. in 10th to fall out of the Playoffs.
“It’s disappointing not to advance, for sure, but we dug ourselves such a big hole those first two races that we were in a must-win situation,” McDowell said. “We weren’t good enough to do that tonight, but I’m still really proud of the speed that we brought and the effort that we brought. We still needed a little bit more to contend for that win, but we gave ourselves a fighting chance.”
“We executed in the race really well, but just didn’t execute on Saturday good enough to put us starting up front and get some stage points early,” said Stenhouse. “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.
It was also an off night for several of the other Playoff drivers who now move on to the Round of 12. The two who were under a microscope all night were Martin Truex, Jr. and Bubba Wallace.
For Truex, a night spent chasing the handling of the car almost went away when his car nearly spun off turn 4 just moments after going a lap down on lap 361. A caution allowed Truex’s crew to make sure the car was okay. From there, he would soldier home to a 19th place finish, making the cut to the next round by a five point margin.
“All-in-all, it was just a fighting night,” said Truex. “You had to fight through it and do the best you could. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough. Now we reset and we go hopefully not have two terrible weeks in a row and be in good shape.”
For Wallace, a gamble on pit strategy in the first segment of the race gave him eight extra playoff points, and a hard fought 14th place finish on the night propelled him to the Round of 12 by four points.
“I’m mentally exhausted,” said Wallace. “I’m wore out. Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That’s what you got to do.”
Other drivers moving on to the Round of 12 after struggling on Saturday night include Tyler Reddick (15th), Kyle Busch (20th), Ryan Blaney (22nd), and Ross Chastain (23rd).
NASCAR Cup Series
Bristol Motor Speedway – Bristol, TN
Bass Pro Shops Night Race – September 16, 2023
1. (2) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 500.
2. (36) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 500.
3. (1) Christopher Bell (P), Toyota, 500.
4. (20) Chris Buescher (P), Ford, 500.
5. (8) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 500.
6. (4) Michael McDowell (P), Ford, 500.
7. (7) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 500.
8. (6) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 500.
9. (3) William Byron (P), Chevrolet, 500.
10. (25) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (P), Chevrolet, 500.
11. (16) Carson Hocevar(i), Chevrolet, 499.
12. (17) Ryan Preece, Ford, 499.
13. (13) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 499.
14. (9) Bubba Wallace (P), Toyota, 499.
15. (12) Tyler Reddick (P), Toyota, 499.
16. (30) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 499.
17. (18) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 499.
18. (26) Aric Almirola, Ford, 499.
19. (5) Martin Truex, Jr. (P), Toyota, 498.
20. (15) Kyle Busch (P), Chevrolet, 498.
21. (24) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 498.
22. (11) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 498.
23. (23) Ross Chastain (P), Chevrolet, 498.
24. (31) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 497.
25. (10) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 497.
26. (35) J.J. Yeley(i), Ford, 495.
27. (14) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 495.
28. (32) Harrison Burton, Ford, 495.
29. (21) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 495.
30. (22) A.J. Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 491.
31. (34) B.J. McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 490.
32. (29) Austin Cindric, Ford, 488.
33. (33) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, Accident, 263.
34. (28) Joey Logano (P), Ford, Accident, 262.
35. (19) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, Accident, 261.
36. (27) Ryan Newman, Ford, Accident, 260.
Average Speed: 94.99 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 48 Mins, 20 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.437 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 6 for 53 laps.
Lead Changes: 10 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: C. Bell (P) 1-71;C. LaJoie 72-119;C. Bell (P) 120-178;K. Larson (P) 179-198;C. Bell (P) 199-255;T. Gibbs # 256-353;D. Hamlin (P) 354;T. Gibbs # 355-358;D. Hamlin (P) 359-364;C. Buescher (P) 365;D. Hamlin (P) 366-500.
Leaders Summary: (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led) Christopher Bell (P) 3 times for 187 laps; Denny Hamlin (P) 3 times for 142 laps; Ty Gibbs # 2 times for 102 laps; Corey LaJoie 1 time for 48 laps; Kyle Larson (P) 1 time for 20 laps; Chris Buescher (P) 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 20,7,23,24,45,1,6,5,19,54
Stage #2 Top Ten: 20,54,5,11,42,34,17,24,41,9
Playoff Standings: 1. William Byron – 3036 (5 Wins); 2. Martin Truex, Jr. – 3036 (3 Wins); 3. Denny Hamlin – 3032 (3 Wins); 4. Kyle Larson – 3023 (3 Wins); 5. Chris Buescher – 3021 (3 Wins); 6. Kyle Busch – 3019 (3 Wins); 7. Christopher Bell – 3016 (1 Win); 8. Tyler Reddick – 3014 (2 Wins); 9. Ross Chastain – 3011 (1 Win); 10. Brad Keselowski – 3011; 11. Ryan Blaney – 3008 (1 Win); 12. Bubba Wallace – 3000.
(i) Ineligible for driver points in this series