EditorsNote: Corrects spelling to “Leavine”; deletes second “Kyle” reference to Busch; tweaks playoff scenarios for clarity; other minor edits
If momentum means anything at all in auto racing, then Denny Hamlin may be on his way to his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
In Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Bristol Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, Hamlin elbowed his way past leader Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go and held on for the victory.
The win gave the Joe Gibbs Racing driver his second victory in the last four races and also gave him his fifth straight podium finish. Just two races now remain until the start of the 16-driver, 10-race playoffs.
“Just the whole team,” Hamlin, who started from the pole and led 79 of 500 laps, told reporters of the key to his success. “Just doing an amazing job right now. We’re just kicking ass.”
It was his fourth victory of the season, tying him with teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for most in 2019.
DiBenedetto finished second and gave him a little something to feel good about as earlier in the week he was informed he would not be back as a driver for the Leavine Family Racing team next year.
“I wanted to win so bad,” DiBenedetto, whose car suffered front-end damage when he was run into by Ryan Newman with 41 laps to go, said after the race as he choked back tears. “I’m thankful but man, I’m sad. We got tight after the deal with Newman when he came up into us.
“Been a tough week. I just want to stick around and keep doing this. I love it. I’m not done yet. Something will come open.”
After his win, Hamlin said, “I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto. I hate it.”
Brad Keselowski of Team Penske finished third while Busch was fourth and Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports was fifth.
Busch, who had won three of the previous four races at Bristol, appeared to be headed to another victory in the final stage. But on a restart on Lap 388, his Toyota twitched and sent Busch from second to fifth.
“We were just too lose at the end,” Busch said. “Car just wasn’t there all weekend long. Just never found what I was looking for.”
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who had two wins in the four races prior to Bristol, appeared to be fast enough to add another win as he led 28 laps. But just before the end of Stage 2, he pitted and then had to be pushed to the garage with a transmission problem.
Four drivers — Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson — started the race on the playoff bubble, Newman and Bowyer sitting in 15th and 16th and Suarez and Johnson within 12 points of the cutoff.
Kendrick Motorsports’ Johnson fared the worst, getting caught up in a fender bender on Lap 80. The seven-time Cup champion sunk downward from there and finished 19th, four laps off the pace.
Newman headed out of Tennessee 15th in points — 14 above the cut line. Suarez is 16th in points while Bowyer is two behind and Johnson 26 behind.
—Field Level Media