Kevin Harvick

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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Driver intro songs for the Bristol night race

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Here are the songs Cup Series drivers were introduced with before tonight’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In order from last to first place.

Ross Chastain – “Watermelon Crawl” by Tracy Byrd

Kyle Weatherman – “All About that Bass” by Meghan Trainor

Reed Sorenson – “Georgia on my Mind” by Ray Charles

JJ Yeley – “Raining Blood” by Slayer

Josh Bilicki – “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons

Quin Houff – “Levels” by Avicii

BJ McLeod – “Fuel” by Metallica

Landon Cassill – “Hang on Sloopy” by The McCoys

Kyle Busch – “Lights Come On” by Jason Aldean

Jimmie Johnson – “Enter Sandman” by Metallica

Chris Buescher – “Evil Like You” by Red Sun Rising

Michael McDowell – “The Floor is Lava” by Blake Rules and Netherfriends

Matt Tifft – “Cleveland Rocks” by The President of the United States of America

Corey LaJoie – “Brand New Man” by Brooks & Dunn with Luke Combs

Paul Menard – “Baby Shark” by Leo Moracchioli

Ty Dillon – “Gold” by Imagine Dragons

Ryan Preece – “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Mötley Crüe

Bubba Wallace – “Into Despair” by Currents

William Byron – “Fortunate Sun” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Clint Bowyer – “God’s Country” by Blake Shelton

Austin Dillon – “Cowboy Baby” by Kid Rock

Daniel Suarez – “El Mariachi Loco”

Daniel Hemric – “Lose Yourself” by Eminem

David Ragan – “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” by Anna Kendrick

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – “Ain’t No Grave” by Johnny Cash

Ryan Newman – “These Are My People” by Rodney Atkins

Brad Keselowski – “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple

Ryan Blaney – “Living the Dream” by Sturgill Simpson

Joey Logano – “Circle of Life” by Elton John

Alex Bowman – “Bow Down” by I Prevail

Erik Jones – “The One I Loved Back Then” by George Jones

Kevin Harvick – “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown

Matt DiBenedetto – “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti (song made famous by the movie “Rocky”)

Chase Elliott – “Beer Never Broke My Heart” by Luke Combs

Aric Almirola – “Give Me the Green Light” by Pit Bull

Kurt Busch – “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC

Martin Truex Jr. – “Drinkin’ Hours” by Cole Swindell

Kyle Larson – “Money in the Grave” by Drake

Denny Hamlin – “Some of It” by Eric Church

 

Kevin Harvick’s rear tire changer sidelined by cancer treatment

Photo: Dustin Long
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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, left a hospital Saturday afternoon after surgery this week as part of his cancer treatment.

Smith, who had the planned surgery Thursday, told NBC Sports through a team spokesperson that he should be back in four to six weeks. The Cup playoffs begin in four weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It was shortly before the Bristol night race last year that doctors discovered Smith had testicular cancer. He spent the day before that race undergoing scans, blood work and other tests to determine if the cancer had spread. Doctors found that the cancer had infected two lymph nodes in his lower abdomen and also saw a spot on his lung that was concerning.

Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, was released from a hospital Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Two days after last year’s Bristol night race, Smith had surgery to remove the tumor in his testicle. After a few weeks to heal, he began chemotherapy treatments. Each round consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery. He had four rounds (12 weeks) of treatments. Smith returned to the track to watch Harvick compete in the championship race in Miami last year and then was back to changing tires at Daytona in February.

Thursday’s surgery is expected to be the final one Smith needs. Tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the first he’s missed this season. He stated through a team spokesperson that he walked a mile in the hospital Friday and again on Saturday before his release.

Harvick, who won last weekend at Michigan, starts eighth in tonight’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

NASCAR reflects on its constant air travel in wake of Dale Jr. crash

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – As his plane began a descent into the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, David Ragan buckled his seat belt.

For a NASCAR driver, that would seem to be second nature after making a living out of driving at 200 mph.

It was a point that reinforced by the terrifying plane crash Thursday involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family.

“Because you get in that habit where you sit down, and you don’t buckle up, you’re already pulling out your phone looking at it,” Ragan told NBCSports.com Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway. “It’s a shame that situations like that do have to happen in order to be reminded. We’re very grateful that Dale and his family were safe, but that will be a good reminder for all of us.”

The NASCAR community unfortunately needs few reminders about the realities of aviation tragedies. On April 1, 1993, defending Cup series champion Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee. A few months later, Davey Allison was killed after suffering head injuries in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

On Oct. 23, 2004, 10 people were killed when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into a Virginia mountain en route to Martinsville Speedway (among the dead were team owner Rick Hendrick’s brother, son and nieces, as well as head engine builder Randy Dorton). Team owner and pilot Jack Roush also has survived two plane crashes, including a 2010 incident that robbed him of vision in his left eye.

With a 10-month, 36-race schedule, NASCAR drivers and teams are constantly in the skies traveling, and Thursday’s crash drove home that reality and the opportunity for reflection.

“As you put it all into perspective and you really realize the amount of time that you spend in an airplane and all the places that you go and things that you do and the amount of time that is required to travel, it’s definitely a reminder of things that can happen,” Kevin Harvick said. “But just thank God everybody is OK because you look at the pictures and all the things that went on, it’s amazing that everybody is OK and, in the end, that’s the best part of that scenario.  There’s really no good part of it other than everybody is OK.”

Ragan, who announced Wednesday that 2019 will be his final full-time season in the Cup Series, said “we take for granted how much of a risk we do take every week flying into small airports on small airplanes. We hop in late at night, and we leave. That is something that the sport is just accustomed to, and accidents do happen.

“Accidents happen on the roadways, in the garage area, on the racetrack and certainly on the transportation side, but (Thursday’s crash) just reminds me that you need to be grateful for every situation like that. That there are some serious situations that when accidents do happen, you need to be prepared.”

Kurt Busch said Earnhardt’s motorhome was parked next to his in the Bristol lot, and he watched Earnhardt leaving last night for home as he arrived.

“I was glad that he, his family and the pilots are OK; it’s a tough situation,” Busch said. “We all travel quite a bit and it was just tough to read about it. I’m sure the facts will start to unfold for us to figure out what happened, and I’m just glad he’s OK.

“We will miss him this weekend. I think it’s best for him to be at home. His motorhome was parked next to mine and they were leaving last night as we were pulling in. It’s just tough when you’re missing a good friend from the racetrack.”

Said Clint Bowyer: “It takes your breath away. Those are people that are our friends, family of NASCAR. When you see them in trouble like that, you see the video, that hits home, man. … That’s how we travel. (Earnhardt’s dog) Gus comes out of that thing. I can see Trip (Bowyer’s dog) in the same and my wife. I just couldn’t imagine. You really can’t put yourself in that situation. It was very, very scary for all of us to be bale to watch that and have to watch that.”

Martin Truex Jr., who was given the break by Earnhardt that led to his two Xfinity Series championships and is one the 15-time most popular driver’s closest friends on the circuits, said it was “surreal” to hear the news of the crash.

“I talked to Kelley (Earnhardt Miller) last night, yesterday on the way before coming here and just happy that everyone is OK,” he said. “It’s really a blessing. They’re like family to me. It was definitely scary. I can’t imagine the thoughts that went through their head and what they’re thinking right now, but just glad that everybody is OK. For us, airplane-wise, safety is always the No. 1 concern, and we don’t take any chances. I guess you just never know how things can play out.”

The plane crash has a little more meaning for Kyle Busch, who has the same plane as Earnhardt, a Citation Latitude, which is serviced by his Truck Series sponsors, Cessna and Textron Aviation

Busch learned about the crash from his own pilot.

“As soon as he said, ‘Junior’s plane went down’ my heart just dropped,” Busch said. “My first thing was, ‘Well, are there any survivors?’ Because you don’t know any of the details, originally, then a lot more of the details start coming out and you start hearing things. It’s a scary situation, you know?

“I know Junior’s had his pilots for a long, long time. I don’t know any of the details passed what you guys all know because I haven’t spoken to anybody. Everybody has procedures and protocol and things like that, and I feel like Cessna and Textron Aviation, those guys do an amazing job. They actually help me manage my aircraft. … It’s been a fantastic aircraft to get me from Point A to Point B, and it’s always been there for us and it’s done a phenomenal job. … My wife (Samantha) is in the air right now flying her way here on the plane and hopefully everything goes well and everything’s normal on that end.”

Friday 5: Silly season off to a late start, leaving many questions

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — The anticipation of NASCAR’s Silly Season has been building because of its late arrival.

Wednesday’s announcement that David Ragan would not run full-time in Cup next year and Thursday’s announcement that Matt DiBenedetto was out at Leavine Family Racing after this season kickstarted Silly Season, making it the latest start to the ride-changing season in recent years.

Also Thursday, Erik Jones left little doubt he’ll be in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing next season and a report stated that Christopher Bell will take over the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing.

Many questions remain. Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer could be headed to Cup next season but have not announced where they’ll be. Clint Bowyer’s contract expires after this season, and while there are indications he’ll remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, nothing official has been announced. Kurt Busch signed a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for this season and said after he won in July at Kentucky that “it would be stupid not to keep this group together.”

Those are just among some of the questions this Silly Season. There are other moves that could take place.

But until this week, there had been a lot of talk but little action. 

That’s much different than when Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway two years ago for the August race. By that point, it had already been announced that:

— Matt Kenseth was out at Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2017 season.

Erik Jones would replace Kenseth in that ride in 2018.

Alex Bowman would take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in 2018.

Brad Keselowski had signed a contract extension with Team Penske.

Ryan Blaney was moving to Team Penske in 2018.

Paul Menard was taking over the Wood Brothers ride with Blaney moving

William Byron would drive the No. 24 in 2018

Matt DiBenedetto would remain with Go Fas Racing.

When Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway last August, there were few moves that had been completed. The only announcements to that point were:

Bubba Wallace to remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through 2020.

— Kasey Kahne was retiring from full-time Cup racing.

Wallace’s announcement was in July. Kahne’s announcement was in August.

The decline in announcements to this point is partly on the complexity of completing deals. It’s not just the driver that has to be signed. There has to be enough sponsorship. Until there is, some deals won’t be done. At this rate, actual movement in Silly Season could continue to go deeper into the season. Of course, the talk is always there, even early in the year.

2. Life in the Fast Lane

Bristol Motor Speedway is notorious for nabbing speeders on pit road. And that could play a key role in Saturday night’s Cup race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

There have been at least six speeding penalties in each of the last 10 Cup races at the half-mile track. There were 11 speeding penalties in April’s race, the most at the track since 17 speeding penalties were called in the April 2016 race.

Those racing for the final playoff spots have had their troubles with speeding on pit road at Bristol.

Daniel Suarez, who is six points out of the final playoff spots, has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races. Jimmie Johnson, who is 12 points out of the final playoff spot, also has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races.

Ryan Newman, who has a 10-point lead on the final playoff spot, was penalized for speeding at Bristol in the 2018 night race.

Bristol’s pit road speed is 30 mph, the same as Martinsville Speedway but Martinsville has not had as many speeding penalties in recent races.

So what makes Bristol more troublesome for drivers?

The track has pit stalls on both the frontstretch and backstretch. On pit stops during cautions, drivers must enter pit road at the exit of Turn 2 even if their pits are on the frontstretch, meaning, they must drive down the backstretch pit road and then run below the apron in the corners before entering the frontstretch pit road. It is the turn where drivers can get in trouble with speeds by cutting it too sharply.

“You’re just trying to get everything you can,” Newman said. “You’re cutting that radius and it’s kind of an unspecified science, I guess, of trying to guess the distance and the speed and you only got some much time to practice it and when you get somebody racing you, you push it a little bit and you get caught.”

3. Sure bet (almost)

Kyle Busch has won six of the last 12 short track races in Cup. No one else has won more than once in that time.

He’s finished in the top three in eight of those 12 races. He’s finished eighth or better in all but one of those races. The exception was a 20th-place finish in last year’s night race at Bristol. He spun on Lap 2 and was hit by multiple cars in that race. Later, he had contact with Martin Truex Jr. and then spun with a flat tire with less than 20 laps to go in the race.

Here is a look at his recent finishes on short tracks (wins in bold):

8th — Richmond (April 2019)

1st — Bristol (April 2019)

3rd — Martinsville (March 2019)

4th — Martinsville (October 2018)

1st — Richmond (September 2018)

20th — Bristol (August 2018)

1st — Richmond (April 2018)

1st — Bristol (April 2018)

2nd — Martinsville (March 2018)

1st — Martinsville (October 2017)

9th — Richmond (September 2017)

1st — Bristol (August 2017)

4. A budding rivalry?

Sam Mayer and Chase Cabre have seemingly built quite a rivalry in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.

It’s been cooking for a bit among the title contenders.

In a story Thursday in the Bristol Herald Courier, Cabre said of Mayer: “I think he’s arrogant. Sam and I have talked, and he knows where I stand.”

Cabre also said in the story: “We have an ongoing rivalry, so things will happen and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion. There’s a good guy and bad guy element now between us. Nobody wants to tear up a race car, but it looks like Sam and I are going to be mashing heads for a while.”

It didn’t take long for them to make contact Thursday night.

Cabre spun on the opening lap after contact from Mayer. NASCAR penalized Mayer for the incident, forcing him to restart at the rear. Mayer went on to win the race and had plenty to say afterward about Cabre.

“He just keeps racing me like … you know what,” Mayer said. “I can’t say the word that describes him right now. He definitely does not race me clean. I did not appreciate it at all. It started at Memphis, all the way back there (June 1 in a race won by Cabre). I waited until it really mattered to finally do something and unfortunately I did it big. I wouldn’t want to call it a rivalry.”

Cabre finished eighth. Medics came to his wrecked car after the race and helped him on to a stretcher. After being checked in the infield care center, he was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation. He later tweeted he was suffering from back pain.

5. Leading the way

Since NBC took over broadcasting the Cup races, beginning June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points than Denny Hamlin.

He has scored 273 points in those seven races. He’s followed by Martin Truex Jr. (262 points), Kyle Busch (250), Kevin Harvick (249) and Erik Jones (237).

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