BRISTOL, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin survived a wild night at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night to win the Irwin Tools Night Race for his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the season.
On a night filled with drama, strategy and crashes, Hamlin muscled his way by Carl Edwards and pulled away to victory over Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been this competitive at Bristol,” said Hamlin, who led 70 laps. “This is a big day. This is just a big win. I don’t know how else to explain it other than it’s the night race at Bristol.”
Carl Edwards was the leader during the final restart on lap 443, with Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin following. Hamlin first got by Vickers after Vickers got loose while battling Edwards for the lead on lap 454. Within a few laps he was all over Edwards for the top spot.
He made his move on lap 461, muscling his way by Edwards to take the race lead. Edwards tried to use his bumper to retake the lead, but it was too little too late. Hamlin managed to pull away, holding off eventual second-place finisher Johnson by 1.103 seconds.
“The only thing you could do was slide job somebody,” Hamlin said of his pass on Edwards for the lead. “It’s one line, you still had to knock somebody out of the way just to make a move. Our car was real phenomenal on the bottom all day. We made most of our passes without touching a soul. I knew I had to get to the front as soon as possible before the caution came out so we could restart first.”
Johnson’s second-place finish locked him in to the 2012 edition of The Chase for the Sprint Cup. Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also locked up spots in The Chase with their finishes Saturday.
“Great night, wish we could have been one spot better but a very solid effort for this Lowe’s team,” said Johnson, who started 37th after qualifying was rained out. “Glad to be locked into The Chase. That’s something I’m very proud of because I’ve made it each year.”
Jeff Gordon chased the top two across the line in third, followed by Vickers and Marcos Ambrose.
The highlight of the night wasn’t Hamlin’s trip to victory lane however. That belonged to a dustup between former series champions Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart.
The pair were fighting for the lead just past the 300 lap mark when they made contact coming out of turn four, sending both cars into the inside wall. Kenseth continued, but Stewart climbed out of his car and shared his frustration by throwing his helmet at Kenseth’s No. 17 as it came down pit road.
“We weren’t that great of a race car. But we were definitely faster than that after that restart. I checked-up twice to not run over him (Kenseth) and I learned my lesson there; 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,” Stewart said after the incident with Kenseth.
Stewart finished 27th, while Kenseth was scored 25th at the end of the race.