Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service
BRISTOL, Tenn. – The first thing Denny Hamlin did after winning Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night race at Bristol Motor Speedway was apologize to the man he beat to the finish line in the 24th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season.
With 11 laps left in the grueling 500-lap event, Hamlin drove to the inside of Matt DiBenedetto and cleared him from the lead. Roughly three minutes later, Hamlin crossed the stripe .502 seconds ahead of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota and handed DiBendetto his second major heartache of a difficult week.
“I just want to say sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (his crew chief) Mike Wheeler,” said Hamlin, who won for the fourth time this season, the second time at Bristol and the 35th time in his career. “I hate it. I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I’ve got to give 110 percent to my whole team. Just sorry.”
The regret was heartfelt. On Tuesday, DiBenedetto learned he would not be returning to the LFR Camry next year, possibly to make room for the unquestioned talent of Christopher Bell. But on Saturday night, he put the distraction behind him and drove with the purpose and tenacity of a driver with something to prove.
Eight laps after a restart on Lap 388, DiBenedetto passed Erik Jones for the lead and held it for 93 laps. But with 28 laps left, after Hamlin passed Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott to move into second place, DiBenedetto lost half his lead battling to put Ryan Newman a lap down. Contact between their cars tightened the handling of DiBenedetto’s Toyota.
“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, for this team, for them giving me this opportunity,” DiBenedetto said on pit road, his voice choking with emotion. “I’m just thankful that they gave me this opportunity. But, man, I’m sad. We got tight after the deal with Newman, when he came up into us. All of a sudden it got really tight after that.
“Congrats to Denny. He raced hard. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. To be racing door to door with him at Bristol, in front of a great group of fans… I’ll try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week. I just want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come. I love it. I love the opportunity. I’m not done yet.
“Something will come open. It’s going to happen. I’m here to win. Something’s going to come open. I’m proud of these guys. Thankful for my wife and fans for sticking with me. It’s been a tough journey, a hard week. Cool for this team.”
DiBenedetto ran consistently in the top 10 and his 93 laps led were a race high. Hamlin, on the other hand, had a roller-coaster race in which he started from the pole, damaged his No. 11 Toyota after contact with Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet, lost a lap for an unscheduled pit stop on lap 189 for a loose wheel, regained the lead lap as the beneficiary under caution on Lap 248 and charged forward from 13th place after a Lap 260 restart to win the race.
After DiBenedetto’s difficulty in passing Newman, Hamlin tracked him down relentlessly, running the top of the track before moving the bottom to make the winning pass.
“Between my spotter (Chris Lambert) and crew chief (Chris Gabehart), they just stayed on me to not get anxious, just kind of take my time,” Hamlin said. “I had plenty of time. I just worked him over, worked him over. I knew I didn’t want to show him the bottom until I knew I could make the pass. I ran the top, ran the top, ran the top, got the position on the bottom and finished it.
“We had a great car that could move around. Came back from a couple laps down, and here we are.”
Brad Keselowski ran third, followed by Kyle Busch, who started 31st and benefited from an opportune caution, shortly before he would have had to make a green-flag pit stop. Chase Elliott came home fifth, with Kyle Larson sixth.
In the battle for the final Playoff spots, Daniel Suarez scored nine points in the first stage and moved past Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer for the final Playoff-eligible position. Suarez leads Bowyer by two points with two races left.
Bowyer and Suarez finished seventh and eighth, respectively, but the stage points made the difference.
Jimmie Johnson’s troubles continued on Saturday night. The seven-time champion started 30th and fell two laps down after contact with Austin Dillon and Hamlin. Johnson fought hard to finish 19th, four laps down, but he fell 26 points behind Suarez for the last Playoff spot.
Daniel Suarez moves into provisional Playoff spot
with strong Bristol run
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Daniel Suarez made a move toward the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with a strong eighth-place run in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, but he gained the most ground with a strategic move near the halfway point in the race.
Suarez stayed on the track under caution for teammate Clint Bowyer’s spin on Lap 242 of 500 and finished second in a two-lap shootout to end the race’s second stage. That move was worth nine stage points to Suarez, who moved two points past Bowyer in the race for the final Playoff spot—even though Bowyer recovered to run seventh at finish.
“I feel like that was probably the biggest thing of the day,” Suarez said. “I feel like that was an amazing call from my crew chief, Billy Scott, and I’m proud of that call. We have to just keep making those decisions.”
Suarez overcame some pit road glitches to finish in the top 10 and has two more races to solidify his position in the Playoffs.
“The racing was fun,” Suarez said. “All in all, it was a pretty solid day for the No. 41 Ford. I feel like we had a top-10 car the entire weekend, and that’s pretty much where we ran. We had some ups and downs on pit road and had some mistakes there, as well as some electrical issues that I feel like we’re lucky we were able to continue to finish the race with the battery.
“But overall I’m proud of my team. Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going in the next few weeks.”
Jimmie Johnson loses ground as playoff cutoff race looms
There’s no mincing words. Jimmie Johnson is in dire peril of missing a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff berth for the first time in his career.
But first things first—before Johnson can think about qualifying for the postseason, his luck has to change.
Though no fault on the driver’s part, Johnson’s no. 48 Chevrolet sustained damaged when Austin Dillon blew a right front tire and hit the outside wall on lap 80. Eventual race winner Denny Hamlin also hit the side of Johnson’s car during the same incident.
Subsequent contact with Paul Menard’s Ford sent Johnson back to pit road for an unscheduled stop, costing him two laps. Ultimately, Johnson came home 19th, four laps off the pace, but it was a hard-fought 19th that could have been worse.
But Johnson finished race 26 points on the wrong side of Playoff eligibility, trailing Daniel Suarez by that number. He’s also 24 points back of Clint Bowyer, who currently holds the 17th spot in the standings.
The early accidents simply deprived Johnson of any chance to make a better run at Bristol.
“After the first incident, it was just too hard to make up ground after that,” Johnson said. “We just had so much damage. To come back 19th is respectable. The other part is that we had to get off strategy because we lost two laps. So the first two-thirds of the race, we were running old tires against the field a lot of the time trying to get laps back. It was just one of those nights.”
“Qualifying (30th) put us in that spot. A better qualifying effort would have had us in a much better position. I wouldn’t have been there when the 3 (Dillon) blew his tire, and life would be totally different.”
Bowyer recovers from spin to stay close in playoff race
Clint Bowyer simply can’t get off the Playoff bubble.
On Lap 242 of Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer tried to make an aggressive pass of the lapped car of Quin Houff and another car to the outside, but the left rear quarter of Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford clipped the nose of Houff’s Chevrolet, and Bowyer went spinning in Turn 2.
Fortunately, Bowyer’s car escaped significant damage, and the Stewart-Haas driver recovered to finish eighth. But Bowyer fell just outside the Playoff cut line when Daniel Suarez scored nine extra points with a strategic move at the end of Stage 2. Bowyer trails his teammate by two points with two races left to determine the Playoff field.
“You’re making split-decisions,” Bowyer said of the spin. “I was trying to pass those two cars and get some more stage points for us, and I clipped him. It wasn’t nothing he did. I was just trying to shoot the gap, and I had a run on those guys and trying to do all I could do.
“We had a good race. We were too loose. I needed more rear grip all night long. That’s probably the loosest I’ve ever been here. We kind of fought front turn all weekend long and was trying to make up for it with wedge out and track bar up – stuff like that – and it just hurts rear grip.
“I mean, all in all, it was a good weekend for us. It was kind of a rebound weekend and what we needed, but you can’t expect those guys to just lay over for you. We did all we could do. I was hoping to be a top-five car and when you’re a top-five car here you’ve got a chance to win, but were just a beat off of that all night.”
Daniel Suárez is back in the Playoff mix
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – He’s back.
While much of the NASCAR community has been crunching numbers, making predictions and reviewing the statistical background of veterans Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson in effort to figure out which two would earn the final two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff positions, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suárez has quietly and efficiently added his name to the mix.
In fact, after earning his second straight top-10 Saturday night under the Bristol Motor Speedway lights, the 27-year old Mexico-born driver and former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion (2016) has stepped over some of these veteran favorites and assumed his position in the title hunt.
A fifth place at Michigan a week ago, followed by an eighth place at Bristol on Saturday night – plus some well-needed stage points and some extraordinary poor luck suffered by the other Playoff hopefuls – and Suárez has found himself ranked 16th in the standings with two races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field.
In the last three races he’s out-performed and out-earned his veteran Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who are ranked 17th and 18th as the series takes an “off-week” before the final two regular season races at Darlington, S.C. on Sept. 1 and Indianapolis on Sept. 8.
Suárez trails 15th place Ryan Newman by 12 points. He has a two-point edge on teammate Bowyer and a 26-point advantage on Johnson.
“I feel like that [stage points] was probably the biggest thing of the day,” Suárez said of his team’s Bristol top-10. “I feel like that was an amazing call from my crew chief Billy Scott and I’m proud of that call. We have to just keep making those decisions.”
Decision-making, fast cars and decent luck will be important at the last two regular season venues – Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They are both widely-considered among the most challenging tracks in auto racing.
Suárez has certainly had some trouble adjusting to the Darlington nuances – with finishes of 38th and 29th in his only starts at the 1.366-mile track known as being “Too Tough To Tame.” He’s been better at Indianapolis – with finishes of seventh and 18th in his only previous starts at the massive 2.5-mile speedway. He’s yet to lead a lap at either place.
Among those in this four-driver mix, Johnson is the only driver with multiple victories at both Darlington and Indianapolis. He has three wins at Darlington and 12 top-10 finishes in 20 starts. His 551 laps led is also most among this foursome. He suffered a DNF there last year, however. His last top 10 was a third-place finish in 2014.
The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has four wins at Indianapolis – seven top-10s in 17 starts. Johnson was runner-up in 2013 and third in 2016 – his last top-10.
Newman, the driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, is the only other driver among these four with a win at one of the final regular season venues. He hasn’t hoisted a trophy at Darlington, but does have an impressive 13 top-10 finishes in 20 starts there, including a runner-up finish in his second career start in 2005. He was 19th there last Fall and had a pair of top-five finishes in the two races just prior.
Indianapolis, however, was the site of one Newman’s most celebrated victories. He won from the pole position in 2013. He has top-10 finishes in the last two races, including a 10th last year.
With so much expectation – personally and from his team – Suárez acknowledged that he’s managing his emotions, even as he is genuinely enthusiastic about his Playoff hopes.
“I try to go like my normal weeks, but there is always that little pressure, especially since you guys [media] are always talking about it and reminding me of the bubble and the points and all that, which I think is good,” Suárez said.
“I have never been in this position before, where I actually was this close to be in the Playoffs. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been in the position where I feel as strong with my team, actually. I feel right now I really want to make the Playoffs because I feel we have a good team. We can perform strong once we are in.”
Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service
Tyler Reddick rallies for dramatic Xfinity victory at Bristol
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Tyler Reddick’s No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet had the word “BEAST” in big block letters on its hood Friday night.
The car was aptly named.
Even though Reddick had to come from the rear of the field twice in his Tame the Beast Camaro—once the result of a stiff penalty and once after a spin—he still needed a bit of luck to win the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
A bit of luck—and large measure of heartache for snake-bitten Justin Allgaier
On older tires than Reddick had, Allgaier shot forward after a restart on Lap 287 of 300 and had a comfortable advantage until a flat tire sent him into the outside wall on Lap 289 and handed the top spot to Reddick, who had battled Brandon Jones and eventual runner-up Chase Briscoe for the second position behind Allgaier.
“I don’t know (how we did this),” said the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, who picked up his fourth victory of the season, his first at Bristol and the seventh of his career. “I thought we made the wrong adjustment on the last (pit) stop, but we had a really fast Chevrolet. We had fresher tires than Justin Allgaier there. We came down pit road and we were just too tight and I thought we were done for.
“I don’t know what happened. Everything just happened at the right spot. I fell back to fourth, and Jones hit the fence and then (Allgaier) had some sort of issue. As you can see, I’m speechless. I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
Minutes after limping home in eight place, two laps down, a crestfallen Allgaier was still struggling to process what had just happened.
“I’ll be honest with you, this is the story of the year,” said Allgaeir, who led 131 laps, second only to the 137 of Kyle Busch, who fell out because of engine failure after winning the second stage. “We had a great car tonight. I don’t know if we could have beaten the 18 (Busch) apples to apples, but when he fell out, I thought—especially at the end—we had the best car.
“I don’t know what else to do, man. It’s just so frustrating. These guys deserve a win. It’s just a tire went down, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
John Hunter Nemechek ran third, followed by Jeremy Clements, pole winner Austin Cindric and Gray Gaulding, the last driver on the lead lap.
Reddick’s adventurous evening started with the first 85-lap stage. After his No. 2 Chevrolet failed pre-qualifying inspection four times, Reddick was not allowed to post a lap in time trials, started from the rear of the field and immediately served a pass-through penalty that put him a lap down.
But Reddick earned a free pass as the highest-scored lapped car when NASCAR called the first caution on Lap 7 for Mason Diaz’s crash on the backstretch. Back on the lead lap, Reddick hustled his car through the field, and on Lap 81 he was fighting Allgaier for the lead.
But Reddick spun in Turn 4 underneath Allgaier’s Chevrolet, knocking the right rear of Allgaier’s car into the outside wall. Brandon Jones sped past and scored the stage victory under caution.
Stage 2 was even more bizarre. Reddick worked his way back to second, passing Allgaier for the position with eight laps left in the stage. Kyle Busch was first to the green/checkered flag on Lap 170, but his engine had begun to fail with five laps left and gave up the ghost as he crossed the start/finish line.
That came long after championship contenders Christopher Bell and Cole Custer and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars Erik Jones and Joey Logano all sustained serious damage to their cars in a multicar pileup on Lap 37.
Custer went three-wide on the top to pass the lapped car of Matt Mills, who moved up the track, pinching Custer’s No. 00 Ford into the outside wall. Custer’s car bounced off the wall and slammed into Bell’s Toyota, sending both cars sliding sideways. With no clear lane, Jones plowed into Custer’s car, and Logano’s Ford slid into Jones’ Toyota.
Both Logano and Jones retired from the race. Bell and Custer lost three laps and four laps, respectively, while their teams hustled to repair their cars.
“Typical Bristol crash,” Logano said. “You see them wrecking in front of you, and you’re on the brakes as hard as you can, and they just keep piling in, and you can’t stop quick enough. Some of that comes from a poor qualifying effort and from that you get caught up in things.
“I thought we were OK. Even saying that, we were still up to seventh or eighth. We weren’t that far back from starting 19th. We were picking our way through there, but it just happens.”