Sunday, August 26, 2012

Public Readings - Denny Hamlin wins Bristol race filled with fireworks

Public Readings - Denny Hamlin wins Bristol race filled with fireworksBristol, Tenn. – Bristol Motor Speedway reclaimed its label as one of NASCAR's most action-packed tracks Saturday, and its rough-and-tumble return was especially pleasing to its newest conqueror.

Denny Hamlin scored what he called the biggest victory of his career Saturday in the Irwin Tools Night Race, leading the final 39 laps after slamming his way past Carl Edwards for the lead.

"I don't know how else to explain it other than it's the night race at Bristol," Hamlin said after the 20th victory of his Sprint Cup career. "You dream about winning at this place, and I've come so close. That's the way Bristol racing is supposed to be — rooting and gouging."

After attendance declines and fan complaints about the lack of fender-banging since a 2007 repave added multiple grooves, Bristol's progressive banking was removed through a grinding process after the March 18 race. The change was designed to make the bottom lane the preferred way around the 0.533-mile oval, but it resulted instead in cars whizzing around the high line. When the banking near the outside wall was ground down, it resulted in a smoother section of concrete that had a higher grip level and made Bristol a one-groove track again, albeit on the opposite lane.

Third-place finisher Jeff Gordon said it was reminiscent of how the track raced prior to a switch from asphalt to concrete in 1992.

"The only way you could pass was to dive on in there and slide-job the guy," the four-time champion said, referring to a maneuver in which a driver floats his car in front a rival in the high lane. "Sometimes you don't complete that, but if you don't complete that, it definitely will get you frustrated and lose positions, and if you hit the guy, it's going to fire him up.

"It was not easy to pass. I guess that's what they were trying to accomplish is (to) make it harder to pass so you had to kind of bump the guy out of the way."

Even with a No. 11 Toyota he said was the fastest in the field, Hamlin had to battle for several laps before taking his final lead from Edwards. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had averted disaster about 15 laps earlier when he had to dodge Brian Vickers, who nearly wrecked while trying to pass Edwards for the lead.

"It was a different type of racing, for sure," Hamlin said. "You had to have at least two-car length gap behind you before you could actually work a guy to the low side, because if you got pinned down there for a couple laps, the guy behind you would fill the hole every time and you would end up going backwards, so it was a constant freight train up high of cars.

"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. … I don't think that we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn't see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You saw a bunch of cars waiting in line to get knocked out of the way or mess up, and that's the same thing we had today."

And that's exactly why the Chesterfield, Va., native fell in love with the track as a child and why he ranked Saturday ahead of his two wins at his home track of Richmond International Raceway.

"You're in front of a bigger crowd" at Bristol, Hamlin said. "You talk to a casual race fan, and they will always ask, 'If I want to go see a race where should I go?" and everyone says the Bristol night race. It's where the most eyes are on us."

In holding off Jimmie Johnson by 1.1 seconds, Hamlin earned his third victory of the season and is tied with Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart for the series lead in wins. Though he hasn't clinched a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, Hamlin is a lock to make the 10-race title playoff and in strong position to be in at least a tie for the top seed.

Johnson clinched a Chase berth along with points leader Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th).

Gordon finished third, followed by Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose.

Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano (who led a race-high 139 laps after a Nationwide win Friday), Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard rounded out the top 10.

Along with bumping and grinding that once packed Bristol's 160,000-seat grandstands for 55 consecutive races, the fireworks and frayed emotions of single-groove racing also returned — as evidenced by a lap 332 fracas between Stewart and Matt Kenseth that was the most concrete reminder that the "old" Bristol was back.

Kenseth and Stewart fought for the lead after a restart but both ended up crashing into the inside wall.

Kenseth pulled away from the wreck, but Stewart climbed out of his No. 14 Chevrolet and stood patiently by the pit wall near a waiting ambulance and hurled his helmet into the hood of Kenseth's No. 17 Ford.

"I'm going to run over him every him every chance I've got from now until the end of the year," said Stewart, who dipped to 10th in the standings and has only a 16-point lead on 11th-place Kahne. "Every chance I've got."

Kenseth didn't say anything on his team radio when Stewart's helmet struck his car.

"I've seen that for a while," Kenseth said. "I was expecting it, and it didn't really bother me. It wasn't going to hurt it any worse."

Stewart's wreck was one of three for the Chevys of Stewart-Haas Racing. Ryan Newman's Chase for the Sprint Cup wild-card berth took a serious hit on lap 191 when he cut a left-rear tire and hit the wall in Turn 4. Crew chief Tony Gibson said the team was unable to repair the car, and Newman was credited with a 36th that tied his worst of the season.

The result moved Kyle Busch past Newman into the second Chase wild-card spot, with Gordon 16 points behind as the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway (where Gordon won a year ago) next weekend.

In her first start at Bristol and fourth of her NASCAR career, Danica Patrick was headed toward delivering SHR its best finish of the night. After starting 43rd, her No. 10 Chevy fell a lap down on lap 50, but she got back on the lead lap by the benefit of NASCAR's free-pass rule and maintained the pace to stay there.

She was running 19th on lap 35 when she was turned into the frontstretch wall by contract in the left rear that was initiated by Regan Smith.

Mimicking her team owner, Patrick walked up the track under caution to show her displeasure, but she elected just to wag her finger at Smith rather than toss her helmet.

"This is Bristol, this is why people love this track and you see tempers flare," said Patrick who wound up 29th — still her best Sprint Cup finish in four career starts. "It was just a bummer because I really felt like the car was going to get a solid top-20 finish and on the lead lap, and that wouldn't have been something I thought would have happened tonight. The team did a great job. It's a shame we lost it, but Bristol is a place you find out who is playing fair."

There were plenty of opportunities Saturday for drivers to gauge their opponents' sportsmanship.

In 10 races since the repave, there had been average of 8.5 yellows for 46 laps. The mayhem returned Saturday with 13 caution flags for 87 laps.

Keselowski was bidding to become the first driver to win three in a row at Bristol since Kurt Busch in 2003-04, but the No. 2 Dodge fell out of contention shortly after the midpoint of the 500-lap race.

While running in the top 10, Keselowski slapped the wall after a tap by Busch. On lap 271, he got bumped from behind on the backstretch by Bobby Labonte, sending Keselowski behind the wall for repairs.

Keselowski said his first incident started when Vickers suddenly slowed.

"I don't know if he had an engine problem or something, and it just (slowed) the whole line," Keselowski said. "I couldn't go anywhere and got hit from behind, and it put me into the fence.

"I know the goal was to make a one-groove racetrack so there'd be more action. But it had an inverse affect to where now everybody is running up against the wall. And the pace of the field, combined with hard tires, has made the track just even more of an aerodynamic-fest."