Denny Hamlin was the victor in a chaotic night race at Bristol with a pass on Carl Edwards 39 laps from home, having earlier survived contact with Landon Cassill on pit road. Hamlin’s third visit to Victory Lane this year is not yet enough to guarantee him a spot in the Chase – alongside the already confirmed Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth – but will boost the confidence of the crew chief Darian Grubb and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organisation no end in the final two races of the regular season.
“This is such a great feeling,” said Hamlin on his first win at Bristol. “You dream about winning at this place and I’ve come so close – I’ve led on the last lap at this track and never won. That part of it is so frustrating. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been this competitive at this race track, but Darian came up with an awesome setup this weekend and our car just took off right from the get-go.”
“Every week we felt like we had a good car, but circumstances took us out of that, or engine failure, mechanical failure or something like that going on in the background,” said Grubb, who won the championship last year with Tony Stewart. “We had fast race cars and we are doing the work that it takes to stay up front each week and once you do that, you had the possibility to win. Guys have been doing a great job making sure we don’t have those issues again, and hopefully we can keep staying up front and running in the top 10.”
Behind Hamlin were Hendrick Motorsports pairing Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, the latter doing his chances of Chase qualification no harm at all with a significantly better performance than last week in Michigan, where he was a catastrophic 28th. Brian Vickers is not in Chase contention, having run only six races this year, but a brilliant fourth place once again staked his claim to a full-time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013. Vickers also made the race’s best save after he got loose trying to pass Edwards for the lead, loosing only 3 spots in the process.
“I tried to pull a slide job on Carl: I gave it all I could, but it wasn’t enough,” Vickers said. “I’m still really happy with a fourth place. I’d loved to have won this thing and I think we had a shot at it.”
Edwards is still technically in Chase contention, but desperately needs a win to be eligible. In the last two races it will be all or nothing for last year’s runner-up, after a strategy gamble didn’t pay off and he ended up down in 22nd.
“It’s all you can do is gamble like that. If we had pitted when we should have we were going to run 10th or 15th anyway,” a dejected Edwards said later. “I made the decision to stay out, which in hindsight that was the wrong decision because we probably would have finished better than we are right now, but I wanted a chance to win the race.
“If we’d had one more caution or a couple cautions and short runs, we were up there in a position to win this thing. You don’t get those opportunities very often, so I had to take it.”
Edwards is not the only man without a win in trouble; an underwhelming run to 15th for Kevin Harvick leaves the Richard Childress Racing driver just 37 points inside the top-10 in points. His alarming lack of wins compared to last year – when Harvick led the standings at this point in the season after dramatic wins at the Auto Club Speedway, the Coke 600 and Martinsville – would result in his missing the Chase if he were to slip outside the top-10, with all the drivers around him (apart from Edwards and the relatively safe Martin Truex Jr.) having won at least once this year.
One man who falls into the more favoured category is Marcos Ambrose, who won in dramatic style at Watkins Glen and is 16th in points. The Australian road-course specialist was a strong fifth atBristol – as he was atMichigan one week ago – but he is well aware that his run of good form has come too late to be a serious Chase contender.
“I’m just trying hard. That’s two top-fives in two weeks for us. It’s been a great month. I’ve just got to thank Todd Parrott and everybody over at Richard Petty Motorsports for giving me great cars and giving me a good chance to run at the front.”
After qualifying was rained out, the grid order was decided by practise speeds, handing the Germain Racing entry of Casey Mears an unexpected pole. He led for the first 26 laps, before the winner of Friday’s Nationwide race – Joey Logano – forced him into a mistake. Logano led a race-high 139 laps, but these came mostly in the early stages and as the track got away from him, so seemingly did his dwindling hopes of making the Chase, as he slipped back to eighth by the finish.
“This was the most frustrating race I think I’ve ever been a part of – you just couldn’t do anything,” Logano said. “I had a good car in the beginning of the race and the track changed and we tried to keep up with it. We just couldn’t get the car as good as we needed it to be.
“We need to win and anything short of that is not good enough.”
David Ragan had a very eventful race; the Georgian getting rather more air-time than he bargained for after first contact with Sam Hornish Jr. put both in the wall, and later contact with Inception Motorsports owner-driver David Stremme, which broke an oil line on his Front Row Motorsports Ford and briefly ignited.
The incident was significant because of the oil slick left at Turn 4, which caught out the leader Kasey Kahne. As a result of the contact with the wall, Kahne would have to make a lengthy pit-stop which dropped him a lap down. He did a brilliant job from then on to wrestle his ill-handling car back into contention and finish a creditable 9th, minimising the points lost to fellow Wildcard contenders Kyle Busch and Gordon, who finished sixth and third respectively.
“We had a really good car—as good as I’ve ever had here,” Kahne said. “We ran in the top 10 with a car that was beat up. You can’t do much better than that. This team is doing a really good job.”
That was more than could be said for Ryan Newman, who for so long has occupied the second Wildcard spot for the Chase, but at Bristol was crudely dumped by Juan Pablo Montoya. Newman had no chance of saving the slide, and was powerless to prevent further contact with an innocent Jeff Burton, who was unable to slow down in time. Newman was unable to get the car going again, and classified a sorry 36th place, dropping him down to fifteenth in points: crucially behind fellow winners Busch and Gordon.
“The crash drove the frame into the motor, and the Outback Steakhouse Chevy was just too far gone to get it back out there,” his crew chief Tony Gibson said. “We had finally gotten some track position to do something with it and we were a little bit tight, but we thought we’d be OK. It’s just misfortune. But we can’t let this get us down. We’ve seen how one race can change this whole deal on who makes the Chase. We’re not giving up. We’ll fight to the bitter end.”
Newman’s team-mates fared little better. Tony Stewart was lapped early in the race by Logano, but clawed his way back into contention, and was battling Matt Kenseth for the lead on lap 333 when the two made contact. Stewart had made a big move for the lead in Turn 4, but Kenseth was able to switch back underneath him into Turn 1. Kenseth leant a little on the reigning champion, and Stewart retaliated, trying to pinch Kenseth down to the bottom of the racetrack. This secondary contact got Stewart loose, and sent both cars sliding towards the inside wall.
It was simply a racing incident, but Stewart clearly felt otherwise. While Kenseth was able to continue, Stewart stepped from his wrecked car, strode into pit-road and threw his helmet at the Roush-Fenway Racing Ford as Kenseth came in for repairs.
“I checked-up twice to not run over him, and I learned my lesson there,” said a still enraged Stewart. “I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now ‘til the end of the year – every chance I’ve got.”
“I’m a little confused,” said Kenseth, who finished 25th but is now guaranteed a spot in the Chase. “He chose not to lift and wrecked us both, so I don’t know.
“He showed me how he was gonna race me down there, so I just did the same thing on the other end. If you look at it, we did the exact same thing; it’s just that he didn’t lift. I don’t really see where that’s 100 percent my fault or problem.”
Danica Patrick’s return to Sprint Cup action was no less dramatic; a solid run brought to an abrupt end by Regan Smith. There was no helmet toss for Danica; the classic finger-point would do just nicely…