Bristol, TN – Denny Hamlin survived a wild night of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway to claim his third victory of the season and therefore virtually assure him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race featured pit strategy throughout its 500-lap distance. Hamlin last pitted during a caution with 84 laps remaining. Carl Edwards remained on the track and took over the lead at the time.
After a fierce battle for the lead, Hamlin wrestled the top spot away from Edwards with 39 laps to go. Hamlin then held off Jimmie Johnson at the finish by 1.1 seconds for his first win at this famed 0.533-mile, high-banked oval.
"This is just a big win," Hamlin said. "I don't know how else to explain it other than it's the night race at Bristol."
Hamlin claimed his 20th career victory in the Sprint Cup Series. His first win at Bristol came in his 14th start here.
"It's been a long time since I've been this competitive at Bristol," he added.
Johnson's second-place finish made him one of three drivers to clinch a spot in the Chase with just two races to go in the regular season.
"It was a great night, but I wish we could have been one spot better," he said.
Johnson started 37th since Friday's qualifying at Bristol was rained out. Johnson struggled in practice, which led to a starting position way back in the field.
Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also punched their tickets into the playoffs. Biffle finished 19th, while Earnhardt Jr. placed 12th.
Biffle, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. are currently the top-three drivers in points.
"It feels really good to make the Chase," Biffle said. "Our coming out of here still leading the points doesn't mean a lot, but man, we had a tough night."
Earnhardt Jr. rebounded from a penalty he received on lap 352 for pitting before pit road was opened during a caution.
"I made a little bit of a mistake by coming down pit road when it was closed," he said. I don't know what I was thinking. We can't be making them too often."
Jeff Gordon finished third, followed by Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose. Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard completed the top-10.
The race featured 13 cautions on Bristol's modified concrete surface. The top groove of the surface was grinded with hopes of bringing back traditional beating and banging among competitors on this track.
And it did, creating the most number of cautions since the track was reconfigured with variable banking in the summer of 2007. The spring race in '07 featured 15 cautions.
The most notable caution came on lap 333 when Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth bumped into each other and crashed while battling for the lead just after a restart.
Stewart expressed his displeasure towards Kenseth when he threw his helmet at the hood of Kenseth's car during the caution laps.
"We weren't that great race car, but we were definitely faster than Matt after that restart," Stewart said. "He checked up twice to knock me over, and I learned my lesson there. I'm going to run over him every chance I get from now until the end of the year, every chance I get."
Stewart ended up finishing 27th, two spots behind Kenseth.
Danica Patrick, who made her fourth Sprint Cup start, was also involved in a late-race wreck. Regan Smith bumped into Patrick, causing her to spin down the track and hit the inside retaining wall. She finished 29th.
Instead of throwing her helmet, Patrick showed her disgust towards Smith by finger-pointing at him when he came around the track under caution.
"Bristol is a place where you find out who's playing fair and who's not," Patrick said.
Kahne maintained his first wild card position, and Busch moved back into the second and final wild card spot. Gordon is third in the rankings, while Ryan Newman dropped from second to fourth after finishing 36th. Newman was involved in an early-race wreck with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Burton.
Edwards, who is battling for a spot in the Chase, faded with less than 20 laps remaining before he ran out of fuel with four to go. He finished 22nd. Edwards chances of making the playoffs are in doubt since he has no victories this year.
With the win, Hamlin jumped from 10th to eighth in the point standings. He is also tied with Johnson, Stewart and Brad Keselowski for most victories in the series this season. The driver who has the most victories and is ranked in the top-10 after the Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway will earn the top seed.
"We're not done winning yet," Hamlin said. "We got a few more to go."
The series runs next on Sept. 2 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.