Denny Hamlin earns hard-fought win over Matt DiBenedetto at Bristol

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After being in stalking mode for more than 20 laps, Denny Hamlin finally got by Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to win Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I had plenty of time, and I just worked him over and worked him over,” Hamlin told NBCSN of his battle with DiBenedetto. “I didn’t want to show him the bottom until I knew I could make the pass. I ran the top and got in position on the bottom and finished it. We came back from a couple laps down and here we are.”

Hamlin, who started from the pole, earned his fourth win of the season and 35th victory of his Cup career, depriving DiBenedetto from earning his first career Cup win.

In earning his second career Cup win at Bristol (the other time was in 2012), Hamlin knew how much a win would mean to DiBenedetto in Saturday’s race. The first thing Hamlin said to NBCSN after climbing from his race car on the frontstretch was: “I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (crew chief) Mike Wheeler. I hate it. I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I have to give 110% to FedEx and my whole team, and I’m just sorry.”

MORE: Results, point standings after Bristol night race

While obviously disappointed, DiBenedetto’s runner-up finish was a career-best showing in his 164 starts in the Cup Series.

“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, this team, for giving me this opportunity,” an emotional DiBenedetto told NBCSN. “I’m so thankful, but man, I’m sad. We got tight after that deal with (Ryan) Newman and came up into us, and all of a sudden it got real tight after that.

“Congrats to Denny; he raced hard. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, so racing door-to-door with him at Bristol and in front of a great group of fans, I’m trying not to get emotional but it’s been a rough week. I want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come.”

Brad Keselowski finished third, followed by Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott.

Sixth through 10th were Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Larson.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kurt Busch.

Playoff update: The battle to make the playoffs is now down to just two races remaining. Drivers above the cutline after Bristol are 15th-ranked Ryan Newman, 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Daniel Suarez. Even with his first top-10 finish in over a month, Clint Bowyer leaves Bristol below the cutline, being scored 17th in the playoff rankings (2 points behind Suarez). Jimmie Johnson slips to 18th (26 points behind Suarez), Paul Menard is 19th (71 points behind Suarez) and Chris Buescher is 20th (85 points behind Suarez).

Who else had a good day: In addition to DiBenedetto’s inspiring run, Brad Keselowski overcame in-race contact to finish third. Clint Bowyer also overcame his own type of adversity, spinning in the first half of the race, and then rallied back to finish seventh.

Who had a bad day: Shortly after leading 28 laps from Lap 164 to 191, Kevin Harvick dropped like a rock and was forced to the garage with a mechanical issue, finishing last (39th). …. Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon were involved in a Lap 80 incident (Denny Hamlin also suffered minor damage as he tried to avoid the cars) that put them into the wall. Dillon finished 34th, while Johnson climbed back up to finish 19th.

Notable: Matt DiBenedetto, who it was announced Thursday that his deal with Leavine Family Racing would not be renewed for next season, came out during prerace introductions as almost a precursor to how the race would wind up being a fight with Hamlin, wearing boxing gloves and a robe and to the theme from the movie “Rocky.”

What’s next: The Cup Series is off next weekend. The next race will be the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sept. 1.

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