An underdog story that felt like it was out of a movie were mere laps from happing on Saturday in Bristol. However, Denny Hamlin had other ideas.
Hamlin passed by Matt DiBenedetto with 11 laps left and then held on for the win the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. DiBendetto, who came out to the Rocky theme song dressed as the boxing character, looked to end his roller coaster week – which included being told he won’t return to the No. 95 car in 2020.
Brad Keselowski finished third in the Bristol thriller, leading for 91 laps over the final two stages, while Kyle Busch, who started 31st and managed to lead for 30 laps, took fourth.
Chase Elliott ended in fifth, while Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top 10.
For Hamlin, it was a special victory as he battled back from two laps down early in the race.
“This race is special,” Hamlin said. “You see how many people are in the stands, the atmosphere was just electric. You could just tell that this weekend is big. My crew chief (Chris Gabehart) encouraged me to not take one lap off. I definitely can say I did not take one lap off. It was obviously great to come back from two laps down.”
Hamlin’s thrill of victory was the agony of defeat for DiBendetto.
“This team gave it everything they had,” DiBenedetto said. “I wanted it so bad and we were so close. After the damage with Newman trying to get around him, I got tight. It flipped the switch and it got significantly tighter after that. Denny was strong and before that I thought I could I could hold him off. But I’m just thankful for this team. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to have this performance. I wanted that win, but it’s coming.”
Hamlin led 67 of the first 83 laps, but his night was rough and tumble from there. There was a glancing blow with Jimmie Johnson on lap 80, which cost him the lead and Stage 1 victory. It also set him back two laps, but Hamlin worked hard to get back in the mix.
Hamlin had to head to the pits twice under green for different issues, including on Lap 380 for a loose wheel, but he continued to charge. He started the last restart on Lap 387 in ninth and then promptly moved through the field in workmanlike fashion.
The driver of the No. 11 continued to close in on DiBenedetto, especially after the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota made contact with Ryan Newman. Hamlin finally chased down DiBenedetto, capturing one of the most satisfying victories of his standout career.