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No rattling cages, but the magic is back at Bristol

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Aug 18, 2019 at 5:09 PM

BRISTOL — It won’t go down as the greatest finish in Bristol Motor Speedway history. It won’t go down as the biggest upset in track history, either.

However, Denny Hamlin’s stirring comeback to beat Matt DiBenedetto to win Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race was another highly entertaining race on the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” It had most everything a race fan could ask for.

With Bristol staff applying the PJ1 traction compound to the lower groove of the turns since 2016, the track has produced the old-school style racing that fans had previously longed for.

There’s always the kaleidoscope of colorful race cars zipping around the high-banked, short track at an average speed of 123 mph. With the improved racing and high stakes, you’re almost guaranteed to see the fender-bumping, paint-swapping, sheet-metal-trading action that Bristol is known for.

With Saturday’s race in front of an estimated crowd around 100,000 fans under the lights of a warm Tennessee night, you had the potential of the ultimate Cinderella story with DiBenedetto.

A year earlier, DiBenedetto left his ride with the GoFas Racing team to “bet on himself,” as he explained it. The move paid off with DiBenedetto getting a ride with the mid-level Leavine Family Racing team that has an alliance with powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, which Hamlin drives for.

In addition, Hamlin’s former crew chief, Mike Wheeler, serves as the crew chief on the No. 95 that DiBenedetto drives. Still, their entry has nowhere near the funding of Hamlin’s No. 11 car.

Making it more of a high-stakes battle, DiBenedetto found out a couple of days earlier he was going to be replaced in the 95 car after the end of the season. It’s a move that will likely result in Christopher Bell promoted to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

DiBenedetto was emotional after such a tough week and losing the race in such a dramatic fashion. The race winner had empathy for DiBenedetto and his former crew chief.

“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and Mike Wheeler. I hate it,” Hamlin said. “It is a tough business at times. Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his talent. A lot of people believe in Matt and he’s been clawing and clawing the last few years.”

Clint Bowyer, whose playoff chances would have suffered with a victory by the No. 95, even felt bad for DiBenedetto, a 28-year-old California native who moved to Hickory, North Carolina, as a teenager to pursue a racing career.

“I hate for that guy. He’s racing for a job and everything else,” Bowyer said.

While fans were denied the storybook ending, they were treated to an exciting rally to the front by Hamlin, who came from a lap down to win. He benefited when his team decided to get tires on a late pit stop when others stayed out for track position. It was his fourth win of the season and his second in the Bristol Night Race.

DiBenedetto felt his car would have been strong enough to hold off Hamlin if not for late-race contact with Ryan Newman, who was trying to stay on the lead lap. One will never know if that was the case with Hamlin’s car having newer tires.

What we do know was it was a race that featured 23 lead changes among 10 drivers. The leaders included usual favorites like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson, who is still looking for a first Bristol win.

Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, even had a 33-lap stint out front and stayed in contention throughout the race.

In addition to the Cup Series, there were different leaders, plenty of competitive racing and a number of multi-car crashes in races for the Xfinity and Truck Series. While there wasn’t the famous finish of Dale Earnhardt “rattling the cage” of Terry Labonte from 20 years earlier, it was truly a captivating weekend of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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