Denny Hamlin cruises to victory in the NASCAR Bass Pro Shops Night Race

Denny Hamlin crosses the finish line to win Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Photo by David Barks.

Four drivers eliminated as Round 1 of the Cup Series playoffs comes to an end

BRISTOL, Tenn. – NASCAR beat the weather and Denny Hamlin beat the field to win Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

Denny Hamlin does his burnout after winning Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Photo by David Barks.

The victory, the 51st of Hamlin’s Cup career, guaranteed him a spot in the Cup Series Round of 12 in the elimination race that saw four drivers ousted from the playoffs; defending series champion Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and, despite his sixth place finish, Michael McDowell.

“We’ve been hit or miss all year but tonight we missed by a mile,” said Harvick.

“Everybody likes a winner,” said Hamlin as the crowd booed after he got out of his car for an on-track interview following his win. “I’m so happy with the way the car was running. We just gotta keep it going.

“It’s our year – there’s nothing to stop us at this point.”

It was also the 207th career win for the Joe Gibbs Racing team.

“It means so much,” said Joe Gibbs. “The way the playoffs are designed – it’s so hard to get from one round to the next. To have three cars advance (Hamlin, Bell, and Truex) is a really big step for us.”

The race got off to a soggy start.

An impending storm forced NASCAR to move the start time up one hour – to 6:30 p.m. EDT.

AJ Allmendinger (16) leads a pack of racers during Saturday night’s race in Bristol. Photo by David Barks.

That didn’t stop a light rain from falling as soon as the call to start the engines was made.

The cars started and almost immediately were shut off.

So they did it again with the same result.

The third time was almost the charm and the cars began rolling at 6:48 p.m.

After several warmup laps, the cars were called back to pit road where they sat for half an hour before the night race finally got going.

Christopher Bell was on the pole with Hamlin starting beside him in second position.

The duo held those positions for the first 70 laps when a crash involving Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger on the front stretch brought out the night’s first, of six, cautions.

Corey LaJoie stayed out as the leaders headed to the pits, and was in first place on the ensuing restart.

LaJoie led the next 48 laps before Bell caught him on the final turn of the 150-lap first stage and beat him to the line by 0.757 seconds for the stage win.

The first stage was also halted from laps 107 to 113  for precipitation and was red-flagged at the conclusion of the first stage because of rain.

Stage 2 ran uninterrupted with Bell going wire-to-wire to win his second stage, completing 300 laps of the 500-lap race over the speedway’s 533-mile oval.

After the stage-break pit stops, Ty Gibbs and Hamlin were on the front row for the restart.

Gibbs took the lead with Hamlin second, Kyle Larson third, Chris Buescher fourth and Bell fifth as the field settled in behind them.

When Martin Truex Jr. spun on lap 363, it brought out the night’s final caution.

Hamlin jumped into the lead on the restart with Larson, who started the race in the 36th, and final, spot.

Although Larson challenged for the lead several times, he was never able to catch Hamlin who led the final 135 laps to the end.

Larson finished second, followed by Bell, Chris Buescher, Gibbs, McDowell, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, William Byron, and Stenhouse.

“I’m definitely happy to finish second,” said Larson. “Our race went a lot better than I thought it would.

“We had good pit stops, the car was good and we got through traffic really well. I just didn’t have the pace tonight that Denny did.”

Hamlin advances to the round of 12 along with Tyler Reddick and Larson, who each won a race in this first round of the playoffs.

Advancing on points are Bell, Buescher, Brad Keselowski, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, and Ross Chastain.

The Cup Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth next weekend as Round 2 of the Cup Series playoffs kicks off.

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