FOX NASCAR Insider
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Denny Hamlin had a shot to win each of the first three playoff races and finally was able to capitalize on a Saturday night where much of the focus was on the drivers trying to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Hamlin outdueled Kyle Larson for the victory at Bristol Motor Speedway in what could be a preview of the two drivers fighting for the championship as they have had the most consistent speed over the first round.
“We know week in and week out, if we’re at our best, we can’t be beat,” Hamlin said in a matter-of-fact tone after his third victory of the season and 51st of his career. “I just don’t think so. But you just never know.”
That wasn’t just a bit of bravado from the polarizing veteran Hamlin, who as boos showered taunted the crowd, saying “I beat your favorite driver.”
As Hamlin celebrated, former Cup champions Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano were among those eliminated from championship contention, along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell.
Regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace lifted themselves from below the cutline entering the race to above the cutline to advance. Thanks to the way the points reset for the next round — Texas, Talladega and Charlotte road course over the next three weeks — Truex and William Byron are tied for the lead in points.
Takeaways from a race where Hamlin and Larson were followed by Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher and Ty Gibbs across the finish line.
Wallace, Truex advance
Truex faced the possibility of being the first regular-season champion to be eliminated in the first round as he didn’t diagnose a broken piece in practice at Darlington and then had a tire puncture at Kansas.
He didn’t have a great night Saturday, but a 19th-place finish was enough to go from seven points below the cutoff to five spots to the good.
“It was a battle and struggle,” Truex said. “It was enough. It wasn’t pretty. After the last two weeks, to come out of here in a good spot is good. Hopefully, the bad luck is out of the way from here on out.”
Bass Pro Shops Night Race highlights
Wallace might have been the most emotional as he entered the race 19 points below the cutoff in his first time competing in the playoffs. He earned eight stage points in the opening stage and then held on for a 14th-place finish, giving him a four-point edge over Harvick and Logano for the final playoff spot.
“I’m mentally exhausted,” Wallace said. “I’m wore out. Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Logano, Harvick eliminated
Logano, the defending Cup champion, was mired near the back and got caught up in a wreck on Lap 263, relegating him to a 34th-place finish. He needed another playoff driver to have trouble for him to advance.
“You get out of the race like that and you’re behind the wall and you’re in denial for a minute,” Logano said. “You don’t want to believe that it happened and you want to think that it’s fixable, but the car was tore up too bad.”
Both Logano and Harvick did not have strong cars, part of an inconsistent season for not just them but their organizations as Logano has just one Penske teammate (Ryan Blaney) who advanced and Harvick was the only Stewart-Haas Racing driver to make the playoffs.
Harvick finished 29th, and the 2014 Cup champion in his final season now knows he won’t compete for the title.
“We never had a chance,” Harvick said. “You’re smart enough to know that.”
Still, it was a bad day to have a bad day for the driver who will join the FOX Sports booth next year.
“It is what it is and that’s probably about what we deserved,” Harvick said.
Hamlin and Larson cruising
While Christopher Bell has won the pole for each of the playoff races and led 187 laps Saturday night, it appears Hamlin and Larson have been the class of the playoff field after the first three events.
Larson won the opener at Darlington and had finishes of first, fourth and second in the playoffs. After a loose wheel at Darlington, Hamlin was second last week at Kansas and then captured the Bristol win.
FINAL LAPS: Denny Hamlin wins Bass Pro Shops Night Race
Hamlin hasn’t won a title and knows the precarious situation for drivers as they have to advance out of three-race rounds to be among the four drivers with a chance to win the title in the season finale at Phoenix.
“I’m not looking to beat him over the next seven weeks, I’m just looking to try to get to Phoenix,” Hamlin said. “We’ve raced head-to-head the last three weeks but anything can happen.
“Certainly he’s not looking at me over the next six weeks and I’m not looking at him. We just have to figure out how we’re going to get there with a shot.”
Larson, who got loose on his qualifying lap and started at the rear of the field, felt he did the best he could Saturday.
“I feel like we had the second-best car and we finished second with it,” Larson said. “We just didn’t have the pace that Denny had.”
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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