BRISTOL, Tenn. — Denny Hamlin moved toward the top seed in NASCAR’s championship race by using a calculated late pass to win for the first time at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin flirted with Carl Edwards for the lead late in the race, and set up the move with 39 laps remaining Saturday night. Hamlin used a slide move to get past Edwards, then held on as Edwards tried to use a cross-over move to get back in front.
It didn’t work for Edwards, and Hamlin drove away for his third victory of the season.
“My biggest win, this is such a great feeling,” said Hamlin, who praised the setup crew chief Darian Grubb used for the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
“It just hauled the mail. This is just a big win, I don’t know how else to explain it.”
There’s two races left before the field is reset for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and seeding is done by “regular-season” wins. With three victories, Hamlin is tied with defending champion Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for most in the series.
The four would be tied for the top seed right now, but all want at least one more win to break the logjam.
“We’re not done winning yet. We’ve still got a few more to go,” Hamlin promised.
Johnson finished second and clinched a berth in the Chase, as did Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jeff Gordon was third — giving Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet’s second and third — followed by Brian Vickers in a Toyota and Marcos Ambrose in a Ford.
Kyle Busch was a quiet sixth, Clint Bowyer was seventh and Joey Logano, winner of the Nationwide Series race Friday night, was eighth. Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard rounded out the top 10. Edwards ended up 22nd.
The race was the first since track owner Bruton Smith ordered a grinding of the top groove around the track in an effort to narrow the racing surface. His goal was to bring back bumping and banging to Bristol after several consecutive disappointing crowds.
Although the race wasn’t a sellout, Hamlin noted “this is the biggest crowd I’ve seen here in forever.”
But it created many unknowns as few were sure how the race would develop.
Asked Friday when it would become evident what the track changes had accomplished, Stewart mockingly said “exactly on lap 236. Not a lap before, not a lap after.”
He was off by about 100 laps.
Stewart rallied from a lap down early in the race to put himself in position to challenge for the lead, but he ran out of track while running with Matt Kenseth and the two cars collided. The damage briefly knocked Stewart out of the race and sent Kenseth to pit road for repairs.
Stewart then showed his displeasure with Kenseth with a two-handed toss of his helmet directly into the front grill of Kenseth’s car. Stewart put all the blame squarely on Kenseth immediately after the accident, vowing to “run over him every chance I get for the rest of the year.”
As for the helmet collected by NASCAR officials on pit road? “The hell with the helmet,” he said.
Kenseth was confused with Stewart’s anger, claiming he gave Stewart room earlier to avoid a wreck and Stewart didn’t do the same.
“I guess he just wanted to do all the taking, so that’s where we ended up,” Kenseth said, adding the two had incidents this season at Sonoma and Indianapolis, and Stewart refused to speak to him about the Indy accident.
“I just said ‘OK, that’s fine. I’m just going to race you the same way you race me,’ “ Kenseth said.
As for Stewart’s threat to wreck Kenseth the rest of the year, Kenseth didn’t seem concerned.
“Look, Tony is probably the greatest race car driver in the garage. I don’t really have anything bad to say about Tony,” Kenseth said, adding he was expecting the helmet throw.
It briefly appeared that there would be two helmet throws during the race as Danica Patrick prepared her reaction following a wreck with Regan Smith. Patrick, who struggled mightily in Friday’s two practice sessions, had climbed to 19th on the board and was on the lead lap when her night ended.
As she approached the track on foot, drivers called for her to throw her helmet at Smith. Alas, Patrick just wagged her finger at Smith as he circled passed.
“We were just racing hard, this is Bristol, this is why people love this track because you see a lot of that, you see tempers flare,” Patrick said.
She’s right. It’s not wrecks that fans missed at Bristol, but they for sure pined for the angry explosions that racing around the tight bullring seemed to create. Drivers had mellowed the last several years at Bristol, and Smith figured narrowing the track surface would bring back the bumping and banging that put fans in the seats.
The drivers almost unanimously opposed any changes, but their protests were ignored as Smith moved forward with the grinding project.
Keselowski, the winner of the previous two Cup races at Bristol, was critical of the track after a wreck sent his car behind the wall for repairs.
“I know the goal was to make a one-groove race track so there’d be more action, but it had an inverse affect to where now everybody is running up against the wall,” Keselowski said.
But Gordon, a five-time Bristol winner, thought the track was in terrific shape.
“I say they grind the whole place. It was awesome,” he said. “It reminded me of old-school Bristol.”