BRISTOL, Tenn. – Matt DiBenedetto earned the loudest cheer at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Denny Hamlin took home the big trophy.
With 11 laps remaining in the Night Race and an estimated crowd of 92,000 watching, Hamlin grabbed the lead from DiBenedetto and charged to his fourth win of the season.
“I hate it for Matt and his guys, but I’ve got to give 110 percent for my team,” said Hamlin after his 35th career victory.
It was the sixth straight top-five finish for Hamlin, who finished second last weekend at Michigan.
“My whole team is just doing an amazing job right now,” Hamlin said.
So how did Hamlin manage to chase down and pass DiBenedetto?
“My spotter and crew chief just stayed on me to not get anxious,” Hamlin said. “I had plenty of time and I just worked and worked [DiBenedetto] over. I didn’t want to show him the bottom until I knew that I could make the pass.”
After navigating around the top groove, Hamlin finally made his move.
“I got the position on the bottom and finished it,” Hamlin said. “We had a great car that could move around. We came back from a couple laps down, and here we are.”
DiBenedetto, who lost his ride with the Leavine Family Racing team earlier this week, stole the show in pre-race introductions by appearing in an “Italian Stallion” boxing robe.
The charismatic former late model racer from Grass Valley, California, then commanded respect of fans by leading from lap 396-488 before settling for career-best runner-up finish.
“I wanted to win so bad,” said an emotional DiBenedetto, amid the roar of approving fans. “I’m just thankful for the guys giving me this opportunity.”
The downfall for DiBenedetto came when his car suffered damage in attempted pass of Ryan Newman just Hamlin’s charge.
“We got really tight after the deal with Newman when he came up into us,” DiBenedetto said. “Congrats to Denny. He raced really hard. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid.
“Racing door-to-door with him at Bristol in front of a great group of fans … I’m not trying not to get emotional. It’s been a tough week and I just want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time.”
Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott rounded out the top five finishers.
“The top and the bottom came in and it was two-groove racing like we’ve seen here the last three or four years,” Keselowski said. “We had a shot at winning. I got a hole in the nose there late and that kind of ruined our day.”
The race featured 23 lead changes among 10 drivers along with eight cautions for 61 laps.
Hamlin started from the pole and maintained the lead over the first 14 laps before Kyle Larson executed the pass. Larson led of a total of 62 laps but had to settle for sixth place finish.
Busch, who has eight Cup wins at BMS, started from the No. 31 spot. After going a lap down within the first 50 laps, Busch managed to make things interesting.
The first caution came on lap 79 when the Austin Dillon car slowed after blowing a right front tire. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who entered the night locked into a four-way battle for one of the two available playoff spots, rammed into the back of Dillon’s Chevrolet.
Shortly after the race resumed, Johnson dropped two laps off the pace. He finished 19th.
“For as beat up as that car is and the runs we did on old tires, we had a good night,” Johnson said. “I know the results are coming. It’s just a series of bad luck and it all started with a bad qualifying effort.”
Fans were on their feet for the conclusion of the opening stage, where Larson was able to barely able to hold off fan favorite Chase Elliott.
Just before Kevin Harvick was forced into the pits with transmission failure, Kurt Busch survived a three-lap shootout to win the second stage.
When action resumed on lap 258, Kyle Busch took the lead but the eight-time BMS Cup winner could not author another victory Saturday.
This wild night belonged to Hamlin.