Denny Hamlin won a true NASCAR Cup Series throwback classic Sunday in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway as teams were presented with a challenging track that ultimately forced teams to pay close attention to their tire wear.

Virginia native Hamlin led 13 times for 163 laps to take his first Food City 500 win and fourth victory at Bristol. It is his second win in a row at The Last Great Colosseum, as he won here last September in the opening round of the Playoffs.

The thrilling race set a NASCAR short track record for lead changes at 54 with 16 different drivers holding the lead at some point. The previous record at Bristol for lead changes was 40 in 1991. Only five cars finished on the lead lap.

The race also set the social media world abuzz as racing experts across the media spectrum, including NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr., as well as thousands of vocal fans and others weighed in talking about how exciting the racing was. Earnhardt tweeted that this race was the “…most exciting short track race we’ve had with the Next Gen.”

“That’s what I grew up doing at short tracks all around the mid-Atlantic, once it became a tire-management race, I liked our chances,” said Hamlin of his 52nd career Cup Series victory and first of the season. “This feels so good to win again at Bristol.”

In a return to concrete for the Food City 500 from three consecutive years of dirt racing as NASCAR returned to its roots, the teams were faced with tire management and that fell right into the strengths for Hamlin and his crew chief Chris Gabehart.

Goodyear used the same tire that ran without issue in the Night Race last season but this weekend with 15-degree cooler temps and a new tacky substance on the track, marbles (tiny rubber debris from wearing tires) accumulated all around the track and made racing at the top extremely difficult. With the uncommon wear becoming a factor, Goodyear did issue the teams one more set of tires near mid-race.

“It was challenging, but a different kind of challenge,” Hamlin said. “I ran a certain pace and line and then made adjustments and Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) kept making the car better and giving me info and it allowed me to do my job better. You learned on the fly and just had to keep making adjustments and we kept getting better. It was a lot of fun for me.”

Hamlin led all but one lap over the final 48 laps as he dueled with teammate Martin Truex Jr. through heavy lapped traffic. Truex ultimately finished second, tying his best-career Cup Series finish at Bristol in 34 career starts (also second at 2011 Night Race).

“Apparently, that’s what I need to have happen here at Bristol to have a shot at winning,” Truex said. “I guess this tire management thing fit into my wheelhouse at Bristol. The key was coming out of the pits so close to Denny. We gave it a hell of an effort, but congrats to them. I had a lot of fun tonight.”

Hamlin also had to overcome a hot start from his other teammate, Ty Gibbs, who led 137 laps and won the first two stages of the race. Many had predicted Gibbs as a top contender to win this race and he looked like he was on his way to his first career Cup win this afternoon in his No. 54 Gibbs Racing machine. Ultimately, though, experience proved to be the overriding factor.

“This is the first time the driver played a huge role in a long, long time,” Hamlin said. “It’s a different philosophy than we are used to. Mostly cars on the bottom are running hard all the way around and then today there was driver technique that had to be a major part of it.

“I’m so proud. I feel like I played a huge factor in the result. It’s one of the more-proud races I’ve had in my career.”

Brad Keselowski finished third, followed by Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson in the top five. Last year’s dirt winner Christopher Bell finished 10th.

Pole winner Ryan Blaney finished 16th. The highest finishing rookie was Josh Berry, who posted a 12th place finish in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing machine.

In a note of interesting track history, Hamlin joins David Pearson (1968), Cale Yarborough (1974) and Kasey Kahne (2013) as winners who have all won at Bristol on St. Patrick’s Day.

BMS PR

Speedway Digest Staff
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