By Jeff Wolfe
The new Bristol is now the old Bristol.
And with it came some of the same antics Saturday night that made the .533-mile track one of the most entertaining on the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Track owner Bruton Smith had the famed-oval put back to its old style after the Spring race by grinding the top groove, and the result was a lot of drivers not only fighting for the same space, but also producing some fighting-like actions and words. The old track did produce a new winner as Denny Hamlin won his first race at Bristol. Hamlin made the winning pass, a slide job, on Carl Edwards with 39 laps to go for his third win of the season and 20th career victory. Hamlin, who drove the No. 11 car to its 200th career win, said the fact he could drive a slightly different groove than the rest of the field was a significant factor in his win.
“Really we were one of the only cars that could really make ground on the bottom,” said Hamlin, who also joined Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart as the only drivers to win three races this season. “So the best car won tonight, no doubt about it. I felt like we were the only car that could really pass like we could, and at any given point it was tough to get around no matter who was in front of you, simply because of the high line was just typically the place you wanted to be.”
Hamlin led five times for 70 laps as there were 22 lead changes among 13 drivers. Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano led the most laps, four times for 139 laps in front of an estimated crowd of 145,000, down from the 156,000 from last year. There were also 13 cautions for 87 laps, not a surprise to Hamlin since most cars were stuck using the high groove.
“There’s nothing he (Smith) is going to do that’s going to make us run the bottom, that’s not the fastest way around the track,” Hamlin said. “But it was the same thing; we were all running in the line, and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around.
“That’s what you’ve got to do at the old Bristol and that’s exactly what we had to race today. You couldn’t just — the slide job was an option to pass, which, you know, that’s won us the race.”
The front of the pack had been a bit of a strange place for Hamlin, who had dropped to tenth in the points standings coming into the race and had not finished in the top-10 since Indianapolis in late July. There was a point where Hamlin wasn’t sure if he was even going to finish Saturday. He had a water temperature issue, and ended up losing almost all of the water.
“We had no water in the car,” Hamlin said. “We were 300 degrees early on in the race and all of the gauges pegged, shooting water out like it’s a superspeedway race and evidently we had an electrical fan, our radio fan go bad, and so we spewed most of our water out, and we hit the wall pretty good. We hit, landed on pit road and I told Darian, the more stuff we hit, the faster it went.”
Hamlin was fast enough to finish ahead of second-place Jimmie Johnson, followed by Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Logano, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard.
Hitting the wall didn’t work out as well for most drivers and that included defending Sprint Cup champion Stewart. He was battling for the lead with Matt Kenseth after a restart on lap 329, when Stewart elected not to pit and started second. Eventually, the two banged doors, sending Stewart into the wall. After climbing out of his No. 14 car, Stewart proved he had no injuries from the wreck by waiting for Kenseth and chucking his helmet at and hitting the No. 17 car. It continued a rivalry that goes back to their Nationwide (back then it was Busch) Series days when Kenseth booted Stewart for a win at Rockingham.
“I checked up twice to not run over him, and I learned my lesson there,” said Stewart, who eventually returned the track and finished 27th. “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. We ran on the restart faster than him each lap, so we just learned our lesson that next time – just drive through him, not even be patient by him. We’re not going to give him that chance again.”
Kenseth, who finished 25th, didn’t seem to understand the reason for Stewart’s anger.
“’I guess he just wanted to do all the taking, so that’s where we ended up,” Kenseth said. Kenseth also mentioned that the two also had incidents at Sonoma and Indianapolis this year. “’I just said ‘OK, that’s fine. I’m just going to race you the same way you race me. Look, Tony is probably the greatest race car driver in the garage. I don’t really have anything bad to say about Tony.”
There was nearly another helmet throw when Danica Patrick was on the lead lap and running 19th when she wasn’t happy with Regan Smith’s move that sent her into the wall and out of the race with 64 laps remaining. She waited for Smith to come back around, but only to wag a disapproving finger at the driver of the No. 78, hanging on to her helmet.
“’We were just racing hard, this is Bristol, this is why people love this track because you see a lot of that, you see tempers flare,” Patrick said.
For Gordon, it was just like old times.
“I say they grind the whole place. It was awesome,” Gordon said. ”It reminded me of old-school Bristol.”
The Sprint Cup teams travel next to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Advocare 500. Coverage begins at 7:00pm EDT Sunday night on ESPN.
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