BRISTOL, Tenn. — They bumped, they banged and a helmet was tossed, too.
It was just like old times Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where tempers flared again much to the delight of track owner Bruton Smith.
Denny Hamlin didn’t mind, either. He used an old-school “slide job” to make a late pass for the lead that led to his first career Bristol win. More important, the victory was the third of the season for Hamlin and moved him into a four-way tie for the top seed in NASCAR’s championship race.
“You struggle to say what it means because I grew up watching this race and all the great finishes,” Hamlin said. “This is just a milestone race that you always want to win. They’ve got one of the best trophies of all tracks and it’s going to be one of my prized possessions and it’s obviously my biggest win.”
Hamlin flirted with Carl Edwards for the lead late in the race, and set up the move with 39 laps remaining Saturday night. Hamlin slid his way past Edwards on a track that was ground this summer by Smith in an effort to bring back excitement.
Edwards tried but failed to use a cross-over move to get back in front, and Hamlin drove away to the win.
“That’s what you had to do. The only thing you could do was slide-job somebody,” Hamlin said of the pass. “Bruton ground the track, but you still had the old Bristol here. It’s one line, you still had to knock somebody out of the way to make a move.”
There’s two races left before the field is reset for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and seeding is done by “regular-season” wins. Hamlin is tied for the series victory lead with defending champion Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
The four would be tied for the top seed right now, but all want at least one more win to break the logjam.
“We’re not done winning yet. We’ve still got a few more to go,” Hamlin promised.
Johnson finished second and clinched a berth in the Chase, as did Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Matt Kenseth clinched at least a wild-card berth.
Jeff Gordon was third — giving Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet’s second and third — followed by Brian Vickers in a Toyota and Marcos Ambrose in a Ford.
Kyle Busch was a quiet sixth, Clint Bowyer was seventh and Joey Logano, winner of the Nationwide Series race Friday night, was eighth. Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard rounded out the top 10. Edwards ended up 22nd.
The race was the first since Smith ordered a grinding of the top groove around the track in an effort to narrow the racing surface. His goal was to bring back bumping and banging to Bristol after several consecutive disappointing crowds.
Although the race wasn’t a sellout, Hamlin noted “this is the biggest crowd I’ve seen here in forever.”
But it created many unknowns as few were sure how the race would develop.
Asked Friday when it would become evident what the track changes had accomplished, Stewart mockingly said “exactly on lap 236. Not a lap before, not a lap after.”
He was off by about 100 laps.
Stewart rallied from a lap down early in the race to put himself in position to challenge for the lead, but he ran out of track while running with Kenseth and the two cars collided. The damage briefly knocked Stewart out of the race and sent Kenseth to pit road for repairs.
Stewart then showed his displeasure with Kenseth with a two-handed toss of his helmet directly into the front grill of Kenseth’s car. Stewart put all the blame squarely on Kenseth immediately after the accident, vowing to “run over him every chance I get for the rest of the year.”
As for the helmet collected by NASCAR officials on pit road? “The hell with the helmet,” he said.
Kenseth was confused with Stewart’s anger, claiming he gave Stewart room earlier to avoid a wreck and Stewart didn’t do the same.
“I guess he just wanted to do all the taking, so that’s where we ended up,” Kenseth said, adding the two had incidents this season at Sonoma and Indianapolis, and Stewart refused to speak to him about the Indy accident.
“I just said ‘OK, that’s fine. I’m just going to race you the same way you race me,'” Kenseth said.
As for Stewart’s threat to wreck Kenseth the rest of the year, Kenseth didn’t seem concerned.
“Look, Tony is probably the greatest race car driver in the garage. I don’t really have anything bad to say about Tony,” Kenseth said, adding he was expecting the helmet throw.
It briefly appeared that there would be two helmet throws during the race as Danica Patrick prepared her reaction following a wreck with Regan Smith. Patrick, who struggled mightily in Friday’s two practice sessions, had climbed to 19th on the board and was on the lead lap when her night ended.
As she approached the track on foot, drivers called for her to throw her helmet at Smith. Alas, Patrick just wagged her finger at Smith as he circled passed.
“We were just racing hard, this is Bristol, this is why people love this track because you see a lot of that, you see tempers flare,” Patrick said.
She’s right. It’s not wrecks that fans missed at Bristol, but they for sure pined for the angry explosions that racing around the tight bullring seemed to create. Drivers had mellowed the last several years at Bristol, and Smith figured narrowing the track surface would bring back the bumping and banging that put fans in the seats.
The drivers almost unanimously opposed any changes, but their protests were ignored as Smith moved forward with the grinding project.
Keselowski, the winner of the previous two Cup races at Bristol, was critical of the track after a wreck sent his car behind the wall for repairs.
“I know the goal was to make a one-groove race track so there’d be more action, but it had an inverse affect to where now everybody is running up against the wall,” Keselowski said.
But Gordon, a five-time Bristol winner, thought the track was in terrific shape.
“I say they grind the whole place. It was awesome,” he said. “It reminded me of old-school Bristol.”