Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Bristol: Denny Hamlin Is Rising to the Challenge … So Far

What Happened?

On a Saturday (Sept. 16) night at Bristol Motor Speedway that was dominated by Toyota, Denny Hamlin took the lead away from teammate Ty Gibbs on lap 359 and never looked back.

Hamlin then fended off Kyle Larson in what proved to be the final restart of the race on lap 370. He was on cruise control from there, as he beat Larson to the stripe by 2.437 seconds to score his third win of the 2023 season and his third triumph in the Bristol Night Race.

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Denny Hamlin Dominates Late To Win The Bristol Night Race

But What Really Happened?

Bristol marked the third consecutive pole for Christopher Bell, and he became the first driver since Kyle Busch in 2017 to pull off the hat trick. The qualifying speed proved to be no fluke on race day, as Bell led the first 71 laps, pitted for four tires and took the top spot back to win the first stage.

The caution-free second stage was rather cut and dry, as Bell and last-place starter Larson took turns swapping the lead in lapped traffic. Bell prevailed once again to sweep the stages, but that was the last time he saw the lead all night. Gibbs won the race off pit road to start the final stage, while Bell dropped to fourth and was never able to make up the lost ground.

Gibbs managed to hold off Hamlin and Larson on consecutive restarts, leading a significant chunk of laps until Hamlin wrestled the lead away with roughly 140 to go. Hamlin was cruising from there, and he had put all but the top 10 a lap down by the time he took the checkered flag after 500 laps.

Who Stood Out?

By scoring career win No. 51, Hamlin moved up to 13th on the all-time win list and broke a tie with Junior Johnson to become the winningest Cup driver without a championship.

For a driver that is still chasing the grand prize, Hamlin has more than answered the call in the first three races of the postseason. He led 177 laps at Darlington Raceway until a loose wheel under green ended his chance at a fourth Southern 500, and he had a win in hand at Kansas Speedway until a late caution shuffled the pit strategy and left him second at the finish. And after two near-misses, Hamlin and the No. 11 team were to seal the deal at Bristol despite an early speeding penalty.

With the speed he’s shown, Hamlin and the No. 11 team are peaking at the right time, and they’ve only turned on the afterburners since the start of September. In the 26 races of the regular season, Hamlin led 389 laps; he’s led 382 in the last three alone.

Could 2023 finally be Hamlin’s year, or will he be left empty-handed once again in November? Seven weeks of racing left to decide.

After a relatively quiet summer, Larson has reminded everyone that he’s only two years removed from winning 10 races in a season. He won his first Southern 500 one week, led the most laps at Kansas the next and came from dead last to finish runner-up at Bristol on Saturday.

Bell led a career-high 187 laps at Bristol before finishing third, but Gibbs caught people’s eyes with a flash of brilliance in Thunder Valley. After leading a combined 12 laps in his first 43 Cup starts, Gibbs paced the Bristol field for 102 circuits and had an average running position of fourth in arguably the best race of his young career.

Michael McDowell may have been eliminated from playoff contention at Bristol, but he gave everything he had. At a track where he had just one top-10 finish in 23 starts, McDowell qualified fourth, ran in the top 10 all night and finished sixth to tie his best-ever short track result.

Outside of the playoffs, the biggest Bristol winner proved to be Carson Hocevar. In his just in fourth Cup start, Hocevar started 16th, scored stage points and ran in the back half of the top 10 for much of the night before scoring a career-best finish of 11th. Oh, and he did it with a loose wheel for the final 135 laps.

Who Fell Flat?

Truex advanced to the second round, but it was not pretty. After qualifying fifth and finishing ninth in the first stage, he was relegated back to 28th with two four-tire pit stops in the first 135 laps. He managed to climb to 19th by the end of the night, good enough to advance by five points. But for a team that looked like a title favorite at the start of the playoffs, they’ll have some work to do in the Round of 12.

The 2023 season has been a nightmare of a title defense for Joey Logano, and it all ended on Saturday night. He qualified 28th and struggled through the first half of the race, and he was laps down by the time a multi-car crash on lap 263 KO’d the No. 22 car. Logano could only watch helplessly from the garage as he missed the cut by four points.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: 2 Former NASCAR Cup Champions Eliminated at Bristol

The most unexplainable performance of the night came from Kevin Harvick. At a track where Harvick has had winning speed the last three years, the No. 4 team collectively took a dump. Harvick ended a miserable night in 29th, five laps down on speed to the leaders. With the way everything played out, Harvick would have made the cut by simply finishing three laps down in 24th. Instead, an all-time clunker of a race locked him out of title contention in his farewell season.

Better Than Last Time?

Bristol was a solid race. The first 100 laps were rough to watch, as everyone rode the bottom to where Bell and Hamlin struggled to even put 30th-place cars a lap down.

But once the top lane came in, it was fun to watch. Larson and Bell battled for the duration of the second stage, and Gibbs, Larson and Hamlin had an intense battle for the top spot in the final stage until Hamlin won out. The finish was rather anti-climactic, as Hamlin checked out on a 131-lap run to the finish that saw few positions change hands. Sometimes, that’s just the way these races go.

The important takeaway from Saturday night is that both lanes were viable for the final 400 laps of the race. Drivers could interchangeably run the top and bottom, and they could run side-by-side for several laps a time while battling for position. The leaders also had a much easier time putting lapped cars away with the second groove, as 10 lead-lap cars marked the lowest total this season.

When compared to the relative lack of passing in last year’s race, this one was a welcome change. There’s still plenty of work to be done with the Next Gen car on short tracks, but this weekend was a step in the right direction.

Paint Scheme of the Race

Bristol saw the triumph return of Mountain Dew, which last served as a primary sponsor for Chase Elliott in the 2020 season.

And triumphant it was, as the mix of yellow, green, red and white on Justin Haley’s No. 31 machine stood out under the Saturday night lights.

The race itself could have gone better for the team, as Haley finished 35th after he was swept up in the same multi-car crash as Logano.

What’s Next?

NASCAR returns to the Lone Star State for the first ever 400-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway.

All the playoff teams will be looking to win and maximize points at Texas, as the wildcard races of Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL await in the Round of 12.

You can catch the 30th Cup race of 2023 on Sunday, Sept. 24 at 2:30 p.m. ET. The race will be the last USA Network broadcast of the season, as the final six races will return to NBC.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Carl D.

I have to admit that Hamlin seems to be stepping it up for the playoffs, and appears better prepared mentally for the championship run than in past seasons. Can he pull it off? Sure. But he’s still Denny, and there’s still seven races to go.

Last edited 8 months ago by Carl D.
Echo

The Toyotas of Hamlin, Reddick and bubba have been the best cars on the track for awhile now, better than the other Gibbs toys. But notice Larson is almost running with them in a Chevy for a team that hasn’t quite figured it out yet. Any improvements by HMS in these last races puts Larson beating Denny because Kyle is the better racer of the two. Wait till the pressure is on Denny and you will see him disintegrate again. He’s trying to psych himself up though, lol ” our year”.

Carl D.

It seems like the HMS Chevys as a group are running a little bit better than they were during the Summer. Maybe.

DoninAjax

He’s done this before and hopefully it ends the same again.

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