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Race report
NASCAR Cup Bristol II

Hamlin cruises to Bristol Cup win as playoff field cut to 12

Denny Hamlin finally cashed in on an elusive NASCAR Cup playoff victory Saturday night as two former champions were eliminated from title contention at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.

In a race that battled to find a rhythm in part due to battles with the weather, Hamlin took control in the second half after he grabbed the lead from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Ty Gibbs with 141 of 500 laps remaining.

As the race remained caution-free the rest of the way, Hamlin was not seriously challenged and cruised to a 2.437-second win over Kyle Larson, who had started dead last in the race.

The win – Hamlin’s third of the 2023 season – came after he had shown himself to have a car capable of winning the first two playoff races, but the best he had come away with was runner-up last weekend at Kansas.

 

Man, everybody likes a winner, right?" Hamlin said as he was met by a cascade of boos from the crowd. "Can't thank this whole team enough. They've really kicked (butt) this whole first round. Really amazing how our team has been. So happy about the way we're running. Can't wait to keep going.

"It's our year. I just feel like we've got it all put together. We've got the speed every single type of race track. Nothing to stop us at this point."

Asked if the boos were a motivating factor, Hamlin said, "Hey, I beat your favorite driver. ... All of 'em."

JGR driver Christopher Bell, who started on the pole and led the most laps (187) finished third, Chris Buescher was fourth and Gibbs ended up fifth.

Completing the top-10 were Michael McDowell, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, William Byron and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Reigning series champion Joey Logano and former champion Kevin Harvick were among the four drivers eliminated from further title contention with the completion of the first round of the playoffs.

Logano was involved in a wreck and Harvick made contact with the wall a couple times and finished five laps down. Stenhouse and McDowell also failed to move on to the Round of 12.

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Stage 1

Bell passed Corey LaJoie with six of 125 laps remaining and held on to claim the Stage 1 win. Bubba Wallace was third, Byron fourth and Tyler Reddick ended up fifth.

Austin Cindric and A.J. Allmendinger wrecked on the frontstretch to bring out the first caution after 70 laps. During pit stops under the caution, Hamlin and Larson were penalized – Hamlin for speeding and Larson for running over equipment – and had to restart from the rear of the field.

Stage 2

Bell edged Gibbs by 0.730 seconds to take the Stage 2 win. Larson was third, Hamlin fourth and Carson Hocevar rounded out the top five.

During the caution break between Stages 1 and 2, rain began to fall, and NASCAR halted the race after 137 laps for nearly 15 minutes.

Larson, who started last in the race, moved into the lead for the first time with 71 laps remaining in the stage. Bell used lapped traffic to reclaim the top spot 20 laps later.

Stage 3

Following the break between Stages 2 and 3, all the lead-lap cars pit with Gibbs first off pit road. He led Hamlin, Larson and Bell as the final 250-lap stage got underway.

LaJoie got into Erik Jones on lap 262, spun down the track and then back up in Turns 3 and 4 where he slammed into Logano. The damage was extensive to Logano’s No. 22 Ford and sent him to the garage and out of the race.

 

With 141 laps remaining, Hamlin ran down Gibbs to take over the race lead and a lap later Martin Truex Jr. got into the wall and brought out the sixth caution of the race.

All the lead-lap cars elected to pit with Hamlin first off pit road. When the race resumed with 131 laps to go, Hamlin led Larson and Bell.

With 75 laps to go, Hamlin had built an almost 2-second advantage over Larson as Bell ran third, 3.6 seconds behind the leader. However, Hamlin nearly wrecked as he raced around Austin Dillon to put him a lap down.

Hamlin’s advantage grew to more than three seconds over Larson with 25 laps remaining in the race and barring an unexpected problem, his win did not appear to be threatened.

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