BRISTOL, TN - Denny Hamlin won the Bristol Night Race but Matt DiBenedetto stole the show on Saturday.
DiBenedetto, who is fighting to stay in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, came out swinging after he was introduced donning a boxing robe with Italian Stallion embroidered on the back.
Although he lost the battle with Hamlin by a half-second, DiBenedetto won over the 100,000-plus fans in the stands at Thunder Valley.
“I want to win,” said DiBenedetto, who finished second. “People know that I’m here to win and they know my dedication and my passion for racing. I think people can feel that, the other drivers can feel it, the fans can feel that, my team can feel that.
“I’m happy and proud to be proving myself because that’s big. That’s what I have to do. I have to earn it the old school way. I have to earn it by racing hard, so that was cool.”
Hamlin was apologetic after tagging his friend with 14 laps to go and eventually taking the lead on Lap 489 to win his second race at Bristol and his fourth of the season.
“I'm so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and Mike Wheeler,” Hamlin said of his friend and former crew chief. “I hate it. I mean, I know a win would mean a lot to that team. I have to give it 110-percent for FedEx and my whole team. Just sorry.
“It is a tough business at times. But Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his résumé in front of everyone. So he doesn't need to type it out. He's going out there and performing. He will land as good or better on his feet, I am certain of it, after this year.”
Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top 10.
Despite leading the field to green, Hamlin had issues early. After trading the point four times with Kyle Larson, Hamlin received residual damage from a wreck involving Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson on Lap 80. It took the driver of the No.11 Fed Ex Toyota nearly 80 more circuits to fight his way back into the top 10.
Larson went on to win Stage 1. The lead was shared by Elliott, Keselowski and Harvick in the second stage before Almirola triggered the third and fourth cautions. He’d eventually finished 29th and dropped from 11th to 13th in the standings.
Martin Truex Jr., was leading when Bowyer spun in Turn 2 for the fifth caution on Lap 244. Truex pitted and turned the lead over to Kurt Busch. Harvick pitted with transmission issues and never returned. He finished 39th. Hamlin received the lucky dog and returned to the lead lap. Busch held the lead to win Stage 2.
Kyle Busch cycled out to the lead but was no match for Keselowski who took the lead on Lap 265 and held on for 85 laps. The rivals battled over the next 16 laps until Alex Bowman had a left front tire go down and hit the wall in Turn 1. Logano plowed into the back of the No. 88 Chevy and collected William Byron in the process. Kyle Busch held the lead until Erik Jones passed him on Lap 373,
Jones' time at the point was short-lived. The race was slowed for the eighth and final time on Lap 373 when Blaney had a left front go flat after tagging the wall and slid into Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Hamlin, Johnson, Byron, David Ragan and Michael McDowell were collected in the melee.
Hamlin and Larson pitted for tires prior to Jones taking the green flag on Lap 388. DiBenedetto, who restarted fourth, powered around Kyle Busch and Elliott coming through Turn 4 and set his sights on Jones. Six laps later, DiBenedetto took the lead. He led a race-high 93 laps before Hamlin wheeled his way back to the front.
Despite giving his all, DiBenedetto developed a tight condition with his car and could not hold off Hamlin with 14 laps to go. After fighting traffic for two additional laps, Hamlin made his move around the Leavine Family No. 95 for the lead and the win.
“I wouldn't want to wreck him,” DiBenedetto said. “But it’s Bristol. It’s short track racing. So, if you can lay the bumper or do whatever you have to do in a smart fashion. When he got past me, I hated that I was so tight. I wanted to get back to him—maybe move him—get him a little out of shape to keep fighting him.
“You just don't go and K.O. the guy or crash him but I would absolutely do everything I could to race door-to-door and race hard to fight to the finish. Contact, or whatever it takes, without crashing him. He’s still a Toyota teammate.”
Kyle Busch extended his points lead by 39 over Logano.