BRISTOL, Tenn. – Matt DiBenedetto did everything in his power to take a stunning victory away from Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night, but Denny Hamlin was just too strong when it mattered.
With 15-lap fresher tires in his arsenal and a fast car in the final laps, Hamlin drove from fourth to the lead during the closing stages of the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race, ultimately passing DiBenedetto with a power move to the inside on lap 489 and driving off into the Tennessee night.
Hamlin led the final 12 laps around the high-banked, concrete half-mile for his fourth win of the season and second at Bristol. His last win at The Last Great Coliseum before Saturday was in August of 2012.
However, as he celebrated with a smoky burnout on the frontstretch, Hamlin’s focus was as much on the driver who he had just beaten – and who announced going into the weekend he wouldn’t be back with Leavine Family Racing in 2020 – as it was on the triumph he collected for his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and Mike Wheeler. I hate it,” said Hamlin of his Toyota teammate and former crew chief. “I know a win would mean a lot to that team. I just had to give it 110 percent for FedEx and my whole team. I’m just sorry (for having to take it away).
“Man, I’m proud of this whole FedEx team for giving me a great car tonight, though,” he added. “This pit crew, my crew chief (Chris Gabehart) … everybody is doing an amazing job right now. They’re just kicking ass and it’s cool to be doing what we’re doing out here.”
Despite starting from the pole, Hamlin actually got pinned a lap down during the first half of the race, when Aric Almirola spun in turn two and brought out the caution flag on lap 190 just moments after the Chesterfield, Va., native ducked to pit road for a loose wheel.
But a wave-around and a free pass later, Hamlin was back on the lead lap, just in time for the second stage break. From there, he carved his way through the field to put himself in contention to strike.
“Between my spotter (Chris Lambert) and crew chief, they just stayed on me to make sure I didn’t get anxious and just took my time,” he noted. “I had plenty of time.”
Hamlin’s patience showed in the closing laps, as he worked both high and low to try and get around DiBenedetto, taking nearly 20 circuits before finally storming past on the bottom and on to victory.
That bottom lane was Hamlin’s ace card, he tipped after the race.
“I just worked him (DiBenedetto) over and worked him over. I knew I didn’t want to show him the bottom until I knew I could make the pass,” Hamlin explained. “I ran the top, ran the top, ran the top, got the position on the bottom and then finished it.
“We had a great car that could move around, came back from a couple laps down … and here we are.”
As for DiBenedetto, the likable Californian charged into the mix on the final restart of the night at lap 388, following the eighth yellow of the night for a five-car accident in turn two.
DiBenedetto surged past Kyle Busch and into second when the green flag waved, then chased down Erik Jones to take the race lead on lap 395, quickly opening up a one-second gap over his nearest pursuers.
He then led the next 93 laps in succession, as a sizable crowd waited with bated breath to see if DiBenedetto could put the rocky events of the last week behind him by taking a statement victory.
However, contact with Ryan Newman inside of 40 laps to go as DiBenedetto was trying to lap Newman’s No. 6 Ford led to front-fender damage that “flipped a switch” on the leader’s race car and allowed Hamlin to close in.
Ultimately, things didn’t pan out as the handling went away on DiBenedetto’s Toyota, but he hung on for a career-best runner-up finish – marking the best result for both himself and Leavine Family Racing.
After climbing out, DiBenedetto couldn’t hold the emotions back and was nearly in tears as he spoke candidly about what his standout performance meant, as well as what he missed out on in the final laps.
“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, for this team, to thank them giving me this opportunity,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m just thankful that they gave me this opportunity. I’m so thankful. But man, I’m sad. We got tight after the deal with Newman when he came up into us.
“Congrats to Denny. He raced hard,” DiBenedetto added. “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 … man. I’m trying not to get too 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 racing. I love the opportunity.
“I’m not done yet.”
Brad Keselowski crossed the line third, followed by Busch and Chase Elliott.
Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer were sixth and seventh, the last two cars on the lead lap, with Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney completing the top 10.