Hamlin Wins IRWIN Tools Night Race; Helmet Thrown, Tempers Flared
Denny Hamlin started Saturday night dancing his way to a $10,000 donation for his foundation during pre-race driver introductions for the IRWIN Tools Night Race. He ended the evening by surviving a slugfest among NASCAR’s elite at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin’s victory marked the 200th victory for car No. 11, a number that has had much success at Bristol with drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough. Much like the hardnosed Waltrip and Yarborough before him, Hamlin had to fight his way through a race filled with action and 13 caution flags.
Winning the prestigious IRWIN Tools Night Race is something every driver longs to do during his career. Hamlin can now mark it off his list.
“I can’t even tell you,” Hamlin said as he described the feeling of his first win at Bristol. “This is such a great feeling. Darian (Grubb) came with a different set up and it hauled the mail. It has been a long time since we have been competitive at Bristol. This is the biggest crowd I have seen in forever. This is a big day. This is a big win. I don’t know how else to explain other than it is the night race at Bristol.
“The only thing you could do was slide job someone…you still had the old Bristol here. It is one line. You still had to knock someone out of the way to make a move. Our car was strong around the bottom all day… Big day; big win.”
Hamlin said no matter what else is accomplished in his career, the Night Race victory is one that he always will remember.
“You count down the laps,” he explained, “and you start to think about it with 10 to go about what it would mean to win, while hoping you will see the white flag. You struggle to say what it means. You grow up watching this race. This is a milestone type of race you want to win. It is one of the best trophies of all the tracks. It will be one of my prized possessions and it is my biggest win.
“It was interesting. It was a different type of racing. You had to be very aware of what was behind you before you attempted to pass the guy. You had to have two car lengths behind you before you could work the guy. It was a constant freight train of cars. The best car won; no doubt about it. At any given point, it was hard to get around the car in front of you…It is a different kind of racing. We were in a line and waiting on the guy in front to screw up to get around. It was like the old Bristol.”
When asked why he considered a win in the IRWIN Tools Night Race more important than even a win at his home track, Hamlin easily described his reasoning.
“You are in front of a bigger crowd,” he said. “It is the Night Race at Bristol. If you talk to a causal fan and they ask someone where to go, everyone says the Night Race at Bristol because the most eyes are on us. It is the most exciting track on the circuit as far as competition is concerned. It is one race me, mom and dad loved to watch. We couldn’t wait to get home Saturday night to see the race. What makes it so special is I watched the race so many times.”
Saturday evening’s event wasn’t without a few controversial moments, the most notable occurring as Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth raced hard for the lead on lap 334. The two drivers slid together coming off the fourth corner, with both ending up against the inside wall. Kenseth was able to drive away, but Stewart was unable to continue.
Once he was out of his damaged machine, Stewart waited on Kenseth to make his way down pit road. As he passed by, Stewart used his best throw to nail Kenseth’s car with his helmet and HANS device. Stewart was able to rejoin the race a few laps later.
“I checked-up twice to not run over him,” Stewart said, “and I learned my lesson there. I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from not until the end of the year. Every chance I’ve got.”
Danica Patrick, who drives for Stewart, also was involved in contact with another driver during the event. After contact with Regan Smith, Patrick’s machine tagged the inside wall hard, taking her out of the event. Patrick walked to the edge of the track, pointing at Smith to show her displeasure.
It was a tough night for the Stewart-Haas crew, as the final team car of Ryan Newman was involved in accident on lap 192. Newman made contact with Juan Montoya, which sent Newman spinning in to the path of Jeff Burton.
Jimmie Johnson came home second, with teammate Jeff Gordon in third.
“It was a great night,” Johnson said after the race. “I wish we could have finished one spot better.
“Tonight was intense,” he said. “To start that deep in the field; when they drop the green flag you are half-a-lap behind. To get going was important for us; I give it to the guys for giving us a good car. At times we had a race winning car; certainly a top three car. It was just a matter of getting to the front and surviving.”
While he was concentrating on driving through the field, Johnson’s crew did inform him about the confrontation between Stewart and Kenseth.
“I saw him (Stewart) waiting with his gear,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I know he impressed our crew. The guys said he had an arm on him; hit the car dead center.”
After the race, Gordon relived the older days, comparing the event to a Cup race he watched at Bristol in 1992.
“This was a pretty wild night,” Gordon said. “A typical night race at Bristol. That outer groove, I can’t believe it. I thought there was potential. What I loved about the racing, even though it was tough to pass, it reminded me of old school Bristol. It reminded me of ’92, before they put concrete down, being on the spotter stand and enjoying the heck out of it because Darrell, Davey and Ernie Irvan were against the wall, diamonding track, getting runs and doing slide jobs. I think it was a success. I had a lot of fun.
“I raced here once in the Busch Series when it was pavement, the way the cars handled and the way the track was; that was the way you ran. You went in on the bottom and you go to the top. Guys were smoking right rear tires; that is what I’m referring to. I think the combination of the rubber and the new tire on the left side; the only way you could pass was to dive in and slide job the guy. Sometimes you don’t complete that. When you don’t complete it you get frustrated and if you hit the guy, it will fire him up.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran well during the race, but an ill-timed mistake dropped him to 12th on the final run down.
“We made a mistake coming down a closed pit,” he said. “I don’t know what we were thinking. The car was fast. We just lost track position. I had fun. I really enjoyed myself. I hope they (the fans) enjoyed it. The guys that didn’t come; I think they missed a good race.”
Saturday night’s IRWIN Tools Night race featured 22 lead changes, tied for the fifth most out of 105 Sprint Cup Series races at Bristol.
Brian Vickers came home fourth, with Marcos Ambrose fifth. Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard rounded out the top 10.
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