The Headline(s): Rebounding from early crash damage and a loose wheel that trapped the team a lap down in the second stage, Denny Hamlin used a long green-flag run to run down Matt DiBenedetto at Bristol Motor Speedway, ruining a Cinderella story by making the final pass for the lead on lap 489 and driving away to his fourth win of the 2019 season, his 35th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory and his 54th career national series win.
— BristolMotorSpeedway (@BMSupdates) August 18, 2019
DiBenedetto’s shortfall was a blessing for Ryan Newman, who scored eight points in the second stage and finished 11th to tighten his grip on the 15th spot in the standings. Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both scored top 10 finishes and find themselves battling for the 16th and final playoff spot, capitalizing on a second consecutive disappointing race with crash damage for Jimmie Johnson.
How It Happened: Hamlin led the field from the pole position, but battled a loose condition that saw him trade the lead with Kyle Larson several times over the opening 45 laps, taking the lead on lap 46 and holding it until the first yellow of the race on lap 81, when Austin Dillon hit the turn 2 wall with a flat tire. Hamlin caught damage, avoiding Dillon’s machine and dropping to 11th on the resulting pit stop, as his crew repaired the car. That handed the lead to Larson, who pulled away after a lap 88 restart and led the rest of the first stage, holding off a late charge from Elliott to win his fourth stage of the season.
Elliott won the pit road battle during the stage break and pulled away to the lead on the lap 135 restart, leading 31 laps until Kevin Harvick surged to the point at lap 164. Hamlin, who had run near the back of the top 10 during the stage, pit under green with a loose wheel on lap 187 only to see the yellow fly at lap 191, when Aric Almirola cut across the nose of JJ Yeley and slapped the turn 2 wall.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 18, 2019
Martin Truex Jr. inherited the lead on the lap 197 restart but handed the top spot to Kurt Busch after the yellow flew shortly before the end of the second stage on lap 244 after Bowyer spun when cutting off the lapped car of Quin Houff. Busch pulled away from Suarez and Newman in a sprint to the end to win stage 2, his second stage victory of the season.
Pit strategy saw Kyle Busch restart from the lead on lap 260, having recovered from early handling woes to get back on the lead lap with a free pass on a lap 214 caution. His time up front was short-lived, however, as Keselowski took the lead on lap 265. Holding the lead for more than 75 laps, Keselowski and the younger Busch brother staged a stellar battle for the lead from lap 350 on that saw the two cars swap the lead eight times before a melee broke out on lap 364 that saw both Truex and Alex Bowman have issues that slowed them on track.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 18, 2019
Holding the lead off pit road on lap 371, Kyle Busch saw teammate Erik Jones surge to the front at lap 373, right before the yellow flew again for the Bristol “big one” that saw Ryan Blaney cut a tire entering a corner, collecting Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Front Row Motorsports teammates Michael McDowell and David Ragan.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 18, 2019
Jones held the lead on the final restart of the race on lap 388 but was literally shown up on lap 396, when DiBenedetto passed him for the top position. Jones responded by overdriving the corner and pounding the wall in his No. 20, forcing him to pit under green while the No. 95 drove away. By lap 420, both Elliott and Keselowski had cut DiBenedetto’s lead in half, only to see it grow back to 1.5 seconds around lap 450. At that point, hard racing between DiBenedetto and Newman cost the No. 95 significant time to a hard-charging Hamlin, who caught DiBenedetto on lap 487, making the final pass for the win two laps later.
Why Should You Care?
Much was made entering race weekend of this being the 20th anniversary of the infamous “rattle his cage” Bristol night race that saw the mighty Dale Earnhardt resoundingly booed after bowling over Terry Labonte to score the race win. It’s one of the most “old school” NASCAR moments one can think of. The old, one-groove Bristol, no PJ1 required. A rough and tumble finish, where no one was thinking that race officials would intervene. And because no fan was thinking that race officials would intervene, the Bristol crowd demonstrated a completely logical and informed behavior; despite it being Earnhardt, despite it being one of the greatest drivers of all-time, and despite it being a driver who had a rap sheet 10 miles long of using his bumper, the crowd deafened the Last Great Colosseum with boos. It wasn’t hard to understand why. Even for Earnhardt, that 1999 race win came dirty.
Fast forward to the 2019 night race, and NASCAR Twitter was throwing vitriol the likes of which rivaled what Earnhardt got in victory lane 20 years ago. Only this time, that ire was directed at the 11th-place finisher, Newman, for having the nerve to race DiBenedetto hard enough that Hamlin cut the race lead in half while he lapped the No. 6 car.
Rather than writing up all the reasons that Newman did nothing wrong, I’ll let the same social media sum it up.
I don’t want to hear anyone blaming Newman for “costing” the 95 a win.
— Geoff Magliocchetti (@GeoffJMags) August 18, 2019
Newman has been berated throughout the 2019 season, and for years, for that matter, as having a reputation for being hard to pass. Maybe that’s why Roush Fenway Racing hired the man in the first place? The seeming expectation that a ton of race fans had this Saturday night makes one wonder if they were confusing the No. 6 car of 2019 with the No. 6 car of Mark Martin. Granted, Martin was well-known for his give-and-take approach to racing, but he also didn’t race in the playoff era. Newman had several reasons to race DiBenedetto hard. Martin’s Fords were reliably faster for most of his career when compared to the rebuilding project Newman has stepped into. And lastly, the fact that a proven Cup winner (with a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 trophy on his resume) has to justify week after week being hard to pass (the nerve) demonstrates that as much as the sport of stock car racing has changed in the past 20 years, so has the fanbase.
So much so that scores of fans were calling for the Bristol Night Race to be decided in the final 50 laps by more give and take. It almost begs the question, was the storyline more important than the race itself?
For perhaps the first time ever, I sympathize with NASCAR in trying to please its fanbase.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Over the course of 103 laps Saturday night, DiBenedetto has arguably become NASCAR’s most popular driver. He deserves the accolades. Between his performance leading the Toyota draft in the Daytona 500 and coming within 10 laps of beating Joe Gibbs Racing outright under green this Saturday, Guido has truly elevated the No. 95 team in a way that even Cup veteran Kasey Kahne failed to a season ago. For that, he found out earlier this week that he’s losing his ride, likely to make room for current Xfinity Series points leader Christopher Bell.
Two takeaways. One, drives like this will land DiBenedetto a ride for 2020. Two, Toyota’s making a mistake letting this guy go. Unless they pull a shocker and promote DiBenedetto at the expense of Jones, the Joe Gibbs Racing and Leavine Family Racing stable will be facing a formidable foe come Speedweeks next year.
Hamlin hasn’t won four races in a season since 2012. He hasn’t finished in the top five in points since 2014. He hasn’t been in prime title contention since 2010. All signs after Bristol point to 2019 being his season. Hamlin was methodical all night long Saturday, overcoming crash damage on lap 80, a loose wheel under green on lap 187, and a more than four-second gap on the track over the course of a green-flag run to score the race win. Top that off with a classy post-race interview that acknowledged DiBenedetto’s efforts even before his own team, and Hamlin’s demonstrating a veteran maturity for possibly the first time, well, ever.
Despite posting his worst qualifying effort since the Daytona 500 and going a lap down early with handling woes, Kyle Busch still managed to score a top-five finish by race’s end. Enough said.
I really don’t understand how the 18 team does that shit. Run around half the race a lap down, now leading like it’s nothing. He can do whatever the fuck he wants. How is he that much better? #BristolNightRace #BassProNRANightRace #Bristol
— Will° (@spinning_will) August 18, 2019
Despite creating his own mess when he cut across Houff’s nose and spun on lap 244, Bowyer recovered to score a much-needed top 10 finish that kept his No. 14 team within striking distance of the 16th and final playoff spot. Recovering like that on a night that saw his competition in Newman and Suarez score solid points was a clutch effort.
Elliott has sustained the momentum from his win at Watkins Glen, posting his third consecutive top-10 finish and putting the summer doldrums behind the No. 9 team. Expect Elliott to be a threat in his own backyard at Darlington.
Chris Buescher finished an uneventful race in 17th, his 13th consecutive top 20 finish for the No. 37 team. Less flashy, but more consistent, than Guido in bidding for a 2020 promotion.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
There’s probably no driver whose stock dropped more this Saturday night than Jones, who literally battled his closest competition for the race lead on lap 397, and came out on the wrong end. While DiBenedetto drove away to a career-best performance, Jones ruined his night by pounding the wall on his own accord only 23 laps after besting Kyle Busch for the race lead. The resulting damage dropped the No. 20 car to 22nd in the running order. Guido for No. 20 in 2020?
The two cars at Stewart-Haas Racing that didn’t score top 10 finishes had rough evenings. Harvick’s momentum from last week’s race win at Michigan couldn’t save him from a transmission failure that had the No. 4 car finish dead last. As for Almirola, his lap 197 incident with Yeley was his second issue with spotter communications in as many races. The No. 10 hasn’t scored a top 10 since Daytona.
Dillon’s tire failure early Saturday night relegated him to a 34th place finish, his fifth finish outside the top 30 in the last seven races. How the No. 3 has fallen.
Blaney drives a Ford, but his tire failure on lap 374 made Ford Motor Company a victim, collecting the Mustangs of Stenhouse, Ragan and McDowell in one fell swoop. All three of those cars finished outside the top 30.
The playoff window for Johnson continues to get smaller, as for the second week in a row crash damage relegated the No. 48 team to a finish outside the top 15, this time coming as a result of Dillon’s troubles on lap 80. Continually finding incidents has robbed the No. 48 team of any chance of capitalizing on momentum from a late-season crew chief change, and has seven-time likely needing a win at Darlington or Indy to make the playoffs.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Short-track racing is good. Really good. Which begs the question why Saturday night was the first time the Cup Series has done it since April. The 2020 schedule didn’t fix this issue, with a short-tracking gap between May and September on the docket. NASCAR would do well to make sure the 2021 schedule does.
In terms of crowd numbers, Saturday’s race may have been the largest for a Cup race since Talladega this spring. And compared to the spring race’s minuscule turnout, Bristol had a lot more to celebrate this weekend.
— Ashly (@Ans_Poet) August 18, 2019
Having said that, some of the accounts of the crowd went beyond hyperbole. Arguing that the stands were packed is laughable, given the visible swaths of empty seats that were seen in all four stands of the speedway. When one considers that less than a decade ago Bristol tickets were still (allegedly) subject to a waiting-list for availability (Dan Snyder and Bruton Smith should get a beer), this was far from a return to glory for the night race. A marked improvement from the spring, and one of the best turnouts of the season for any Cup race, but it’s not doing anyone, be they fans, media, sponsors, or others, any favors to exaggerate what was seen Saturday night.
it also looks to be one of the better crowds here since I can remember too. probably 400,000 people id guess. maybe more. we'll never know.
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) August 17, 2019
I’m torn on what to say about NBC’s coverage of the night race. For one, NBC’s camera work was outstanding throughout the night. Parker Kligerman handled the DiBenedetto post-race interview superbly. And the decision on the pre-race program to show driver introductions live without commercial interruption was a welcome surprise. Pretty much everything went well this Saturday, outside of the booth.
Inside the booth was a different story. The issues experienced in the booth could not just be attributed to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s understandable absence. Rick Allen seemed to be stumbling over his words for much of the race. The call of the race identified an early battle for second and third as the battle for the race lead. What’s more, this wasn’t just an NBC issue; Thursday’s night’s Truck telecast saw the entire FOX booth struggling. The issues were almost laughable, including Michael Waltrip describing Natalie Decker “racing competitively with the leaders” when she was being lapped, two grooves up the track away from the lead pack. Not to mention his crush on Stewart Friesen rivaling his brother’s admiration for Kyle Busch.
Funny thing is, I seem to remember Marty Reid getting canned for something similar. Have standards really fallen that far since 2013?
While speaking of the Truck Series, it’s a damn shame that “Radiogate” has overshadowed the fact that the playoff opener produced an intense battle between Brett Moffitt and Ross Chastain that was fun to watch on the track, and in the context of the playoff model.
Two radio transmissions are in the spotlight: spotter Kevin Hamlin profanely frustrated with Decker’s latest incident(s) on track, and a member of Matt Crafton‘s team using slurs on the radio to express frustration with Friesen’s team. First, anyone that objectively watched an ARCA race in 2018 saw Decker’s struggles coming. Two, as I’ve been saying since 2009, using foul language in the heat of competition does not mean that NASCAR has a prejudice problem. Of course, that didn’t stop the ideologues at Deadspin for running with the Crafton/Friesen story in lieu of actually covering a serious points battle. God help the nation if NFL scrums ever get miked.
Sponsor IK9 was seen both on Hailie Deegan’s K&N car at Bristol on Thursday and Jones’ Xfinity Series ride on Friday. Not seen in either race was Jeffrey Earnhardt. At least in DiBenedetto’s case, the Gibbs and Toyota camp aren’t taking a sponsor along with the ride…
Best Paint Scheme: Yeley – Even though the Slayer deal didn’t work out, Yeley is a driver who can pull off a blood and barbed wire paint scheme.
— Rick Ware Racing (@RickWareRacing) August 16, 2019
Best Intro Music (Runner-Up Award): Because DiBenedetto owned driver intros with his Rocky routine. Honorable mentions go to Joey Logano for going all Lion King on Bristol and reminding NASCAR that until Homestead, he’s still the Cup Series’ Mufasa. Second, to Reed Sorenson, for showing home state pride with some Ray Charles. Though Elliott Sadler wins the home state pride award.
Hey @ClintBowyer .. you wish your ass was from Emporia Virginia!!! Hahahaa
— Elliott Sadler (@Elliott_Sadler) August 17, 2019
Where It Rated: In honor of Newman (yes, I’m rubbing it in his detractors’ faces), the night race gets rated six beers out of six. As good as Talladega was, this was the best race of the 2019 season since the Daytona 500… which scored as high as it did thanks to Mr. DiBenedetto’s Toyota pack lapping other drafting packs under green. Where Guido goes, good racing seems to follow.
What’s the Point(s): Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, Harvick, Keselowski, Logano and Truex have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs were to start today, Blaney, Larson, William Byron, Almirola, Jones, Newman and Suarez would point their way in. Suarez currently holds a two-point lead over teammate Bowyer for the final playoff spot.
Up Next: The final off-weekend of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has arrived. The Cup Series will next head to the Darlington Raceway for the crown jewel Southern 500 on Labor Day Weekend.