BRISTOL, Tenn. — The mayhem on the track Saturday night looked an awful lot like the action Denny Hamlin grew up watching in the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway.
But the result of the Irwin Tools Night Race — that was a scene from the farthest reaches of Hamlin’s wildest dreams.
Hamlin survived an early collision on pit road and a mechanical problem, took the lead from Carl Edwards on lap 462 and held off five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson down the stretch to score his first career Cup victory at BMS. It was the third win of the season for the Virginia native, tying him with three other drivers for the series lead.
“That’s what you had to do,” Hamlin said of the pass that swept him past Edwards and into the lead. “The only thing you could do is slide-job somebody. It’s one line. You still had to knock somebody out of the way to get by.”
As the final laps ticked away, Hamlin picked his way through a parade of misfit race cars, lapped vehicles with huge chunks of sheet metal torn out of them during a string of wrecks that helped bring the caution flag out 13 times.
For the first time in a long time, Saturday’s race felt like something to be survived instead of something to be won. Leaders bubbled up to the top of the front of the field only to fall away as a result of a variety of mistakes, wrecks and ill-conceived pit strategies.
Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart found themselves racing for the lead when they came together coming out of turn four on lap 334. They both crashed into the inside wall, ending each of their chances at picking up a victory.
Stewart climbed out of his car and waited patiently for Kenseth to drive by. When Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford was within range, Stewart threw a perfect strike with his helmet and hit Kenseth’s car in the middle of the hood as Saturday’s large crowd roared in approval.
“I’m going to run over him every chance I get for the rest of the year,” Stewart said after being released from the infield care center.
Kenseth said that after Stewart got into him at Sonoma and Indianapolis earlier this summer, he told Stewart he was going to start racing him the way he was being raced. When push came to shove on Saturday, Kenseth said he was true to his word.
As for the helmet, Kenseth said he figured it was coming.
“I was expecting it and it didn’t really bother me,” he said. “It wasn’t going to hurt us any worse.”
While the refurbished racing surface produced the physical brand of racing fans have clamored for since progressive banking was installed in 2007, it was far from what fans call “Old Bristol.” Instead of battling for the bottom lane, drivers found themselves fighting over the lane along the top of the high banks despite the fact that the recent grinding of the top groove was an effort to make that section of track undrivable.
Nonetheless, it made for quite a show. Johnson said he hopes the fans could see just how intense the action was.
“I’m not sure what played through to the fans, but inside the car, to complete a pass, you had to set somebody up and make a banzai pass to get in front of them,” he said. “There seemed to be plenty of bumping and banging along the top lane, so hopefully that came through.”
Jeff Gordon, who came home with a third-place finish, said that track officials may have sent the track surface further back in time than they intended. Instead of producing the type of racing seen in the late 1990s, Gordon said the surface allowed for the same sort of action he remembers watching in the early ’90s when the track was still paved with asphalt.
“What I loved about the race tonight, it reminded me of old-school Bristol before they put concrete down,” Gordon said. “Those guys (back then) were just running up against the wall, diamonding the racetrack. I think it was a success. I raced here once when it was pavement. It was just the way the car handled.”
Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top five. Clint Bowyer finished seventh and Martin Truex Jr. came home 11th to orchestrate a red-letter day for Michael Waltrip Racing.
On a night when survival was the key to success, it seemed fitting that Hamlin finally won at BMS in a car that refused to quit.
“We had no water in the car. We were 300 degrees early in the race,” Hamlin said. “Evidently we had a radiator fan go bad. We hit the wall pretty good. We hit Landon Cassill on pit road. But I told (crew chief) Darian (Grubb), the more stuff we hit, the faster we went.”