Denny Hamlin led the final 141 laps to win Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Hamlin scored his second career win at Bristol, besting Kyle Larson in second and Christopher Bell in third.
Bubba Wallace finished 14th and Martin Truex Jr. 19th, and both drivers narrowly advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Wallace was four points above the cutoff and Truex was five.
Though Hamlin clinched his spot in the Round of 12 at the end of stage two, the driver of the No. 11 still showed plenty of enthusiasm after winning the Bristol Night Race.
“Just amazing how good our team has been,” Hamlin told Marty Snider. “It’s our year. I feel like we just have it all put together, we’ve got the speed at every single type of racetrack. Nothing to stop us at this point.”
“I beat your favorite driver.” Hamlin quipped in a mic-drop moment as many of the fans in attendance rained boos down on him.
The start of the race, which moved up an hour to try and beat the rain – inevitably battled wet weather anyways. When the green flag finally dropped, the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Bell and Hamlin drove away from the field.
The first yellow of the night occurred when Bell moved AJ Allmendinger to lap him. Allmendinger drifted too high in the next corner and slowed after getting into the wall. Austin Cindric could not avoid Allmendinger, leading to a collision.
With passing on the track seemingly near-impossible, a number of pit strategies played out, resulting in Corey LaJoie taking the lead by staying out. LaJoie, who set a career-high for laps led in a race with 48, paced the field until Bell drove back up to the lead at the end of stage 1 to take the stage win.
Mother nature interceded again, causing a brief intermission after the first stage.
Though stage 2 ran green the entire way, it did not leave a lack of battles. Bell faced a challenge from Larson, riding the high line after starting in the back of the field. While Larson led laps, Bell drove back to the lead.
By the end of stage 2, Bell drove away again, lapping a number of playoff contenders. Along with Hamlin, William Byron clinched his spot in the Round of 12 with points accrued through the first two stages.
Rookie Gibbs snagged the lead on pit road.
After the following restart, LaJoie spun down the backstretch and in front of the field in turn 3, causing a pileup. When he slid into the field, LaJoie clipped Logano, who received major damage. The damaged was bad enough to eliminate the defending Cup champion from the race and the playoffs.
“Obviously, it’s a real bummer,” Logano said. “You’re in denial for a minute. You don’t want to believe that it happened. You want to think that it’s fixable, but the car was torn up too bad”
“We’re still the same team that won the championship last year. We’re just a little lost in the moment. (We’ll) keep fighting and try to figure some things out.”
The final stage ran green until lap 362. Shortly after Hamlin passed Gibbs for the lead, Hamlin put Truex a lap down. Suddenly, Truex broke loose and barely tagged the wall with the right-rear corner of his car. He locked up the tires while standing on the brakes, and NASCAR saw enough smoke to throw a yellow.
Truex and the No. 19 team made some adjustments and continued, and the rest of the race ran green. While Hamlin drove off into the night, the playoff picture cleared up.
With Logano out of the race, Truex and Wallace held a narrow but solid margin above the cut. Meanwhile, Harvick ran multiple laps down, unable to gain positions. Stenhouse ran just inside the top 10 while McDowell ran solidly in sixth, but both drivers needed a win to advance.
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begins the Round of 12 on Sept. 24 (Sunday) at Texas Motor Speedway. The AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 will be televised at 3 p.m. ET on the USA Network.
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