NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins Fourth Race of Season

NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins Fourth Race of Season

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Denny Hamlin won Saturday night's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway from pole with the fastest car, but that did not even come close to telling the story of the night. Not only did Hamlin have to battle back from damage and two loose wheels, but he had to chase down Matt DiBenedetto, who led 93 laps, and make a pass for the win in the waning miles. It was a night full of stories and ends with Hamlin joining teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. at the top of the winner's board with four race wins on the season.

The series now gets a week to catch its breath with a week off before attacking the final two races of the regular season. Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500 will be first up with a Sunday-night race on Labor Day weekend, and then the Brickyard 400 will finalize the 16 drivers that will battle for the championship. Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez hold the final two positions in the playoff standings with Clint Bowyer just two points adrift in 17th. Jimmie Johnson may be the bubble driver most in danger of missing out with a 26-point gap to Suarez.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin's streak of good form continued in Bristol, as he won the pole, jumped out to lead the race's early laps and then put together the fastest car on track at the finish to grab another 2019 win. Multiple loose

Denny Hamlin won Saturday night's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway from pole with the fastest car, but that did not even come close to telling the story of the night. Not only did Hamlin have to battle back from damage and two loose wheels, but he had to chase down Matt DiBenedetto, who led 93 laps, and make a pass for the win in the waning miles. It was a night full of stories and ends with Hamlin joining teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. at the top of the winner's board with four race wins on the season.

The series now gets a week to catch its breath with a week off before attacking the final two races of the regular season. Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500 will be first up with a Sunday-night race on Labor Day weekend, and then the Brickyard 400 will finalize the 16 drivers that will battle for the championship. Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez hold the final two positions in the playoff standings with Clint Bowyer just two points adrift in 17th. Jimmie Johnson may be the bubble driver most in danger of missing out with a 26-point gap to Suarez.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin's streak of good form continued in Bristol, as he won the pole, jumped out to lead the race's early laps and then put together the fastest car on track at the finish to grab another 2019 win. Multiple loose wheels meant he had to climb out of a hole to get back into contention, and his speed and driving enabled him to do just that. He overcame those midrace issues to force his way back to the second position with less than 50 laps to go, though. Hamlin is building momentum for the playoffs and heads to one of his better tracks in two weeks at Darlington. He was two wins, including 2017, at the circuit with only two finishes outside of the top 10 there in his career.

Matt DiBenedetto – DiBenedetto was at his best Saturday night and added his best-ever series finish to his resume with the runner-up spot. Just a few days after confirming that he would not return with the No. 95 team next season, he went out and showed that he deserves a full-time ride in the series as one of the top drivers on the night. He has been having his best season since joining the team and continues showing that he has the potential to do even more. Considering the team is also using older equipment makes their accomplishments even more impressive. DiBenedetto is not a fantasy roster filler anymore. His best Darlington finish was 25th in the 2015 race, but he's expected to eclipse that in two weeks.

Kyle Larson – Larson wrested the early lead from Denny Hamlin and then went on to dominate the first stage with the fastest car on track. Throughout the race, he continued to preserve his car and kept it running at the front and within touch of the lead to capitalize when opportunities presented themselves. The long green-flag runs and traffic at the finish left him just too far out of contention to join the battle for the win, but he confidently added another top-five finish to his resume in a good week as the playoffs approach. Larson's worst Darlington finish came in 2017 when he finished 14th. He finished in the top 10 every other one of his five starts at the track.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski hasn't exactly been the best short-track racer in recent seasons despite being one of the better ones early in his career. That tide seems to be changing, however. Saturday was a good example of how Keselowski has returned to his past short-track form. He not only scored a top-five finish, but he also got out into the lead and stayed out front for nearly 100 laps. It was just the kind of performance the No. 2 team needs to build confidence ahead of the playoffs. Keselowski is the most recent Southern 500 victor and will work to defend that title in two weeks. He has also led laps in the last five Darlington races; this is another opportunity for him to build steam for the championship push.

Kyle Busch – Busch had the disadvantage of being first on track for qualifying for Bristol, which left him with a starting spot outside of the top 30. Bristol is a track that rewards starting up front, which meant Busch had plenty of work ahead of him in the race. He worked hard and battled Paul Menard for much of the race before taking advantage of cautions to get onto the lead lap and then gain track position with the lead. He scraped hard to get a fourth-place finish but walked away from the race disappointed that his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are currently outperforming him. Busch won at Darlington in 2008 and hasn't finished lower than 11th at the track since 2009.

DOWNGRADE

Joey Logano – Logano was the first driver to have trouble Saturday night in Bristol. The No. 22 machine had a cut right-front tire that sent him to the pits unexpectedly in the opening stage. A slow stop compounded the problem, and Logano returned to the track three laps down. Things only got worse, unfortunately. A trouble in traffic ahead left Logano as the meat in a sandwich of cars in an accordion-like crash. With damage to the front and rear of his car, there wasn't much the driver was able to salvage other than limping home to the finish. Logano was the runner-up at Darlington last season and has finished inside the top 10 at the track in every one of the last five races.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick suffered a mechanical failure that took him out of the race near the halfway point Saturday night in Bristol, leaving him with a forgettable 39th-place finish. The No. 4 has been making strides forward since getting his first win of the season and can now fully focus on preparing for the playoffs. With the failure, he lost track time and a bit of momentum as well. Darlington should be a spot at which he can get some of that momentum back, however. He has one victory at the track from 2014, and his 22 career starts have given him an average finish of 14.8. He hasn't finished outside of the top 10 there in the last six races.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson's trouble effectively ended his chances of getting into the playoffs on points. He was running hard to stay on the lead lap through much of Saturday night's race and then was caught up in trouble in front of him that pushed him down the order. His 19th-place finish extended his string of finishes without a top-10 to six and left him 26 points behind the 16th-place position in the standings. Johnson has two races to get a win to revive his championship hopes. He is a three-time Darlington winner but hasn't finished in the top 10 there in the last four years. The team hasn't made the changes they need to get back into competitive form, and it looks like Johnson's streak of playoff appearances is about to come to an end.

Aric AlmirolaAlmirola brought out a caution in the middle of the second stage when he turned into J.J. Yeley. The contact sent Almirola into the wall and left him with heavy rear damage. More contact with the wall after returning to the track effectively ended any chance he could salvage a finish that would help him in the standings. He now sits 14th in the series standings with two races to go before the playoffs commence. Top-10 finishes should see him safely into the playoff field, a win would make him feel more secure, but the focus now will be on avoiding more major trouble like Saturday's. Almirola has never finished in the top 10 at Darlington. His best result at the track was 11th in 2015.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Darrell Wallace Jr. – Bubba Wallace hasn't had a lot to get excited about this season, as Richard Petty Motorsports has struggled to field a competitive car and has lacked the funding to make strides forward in the standings. His run Saturday night in Bristol was one of his better finishes of the year, though. The 14th-place finish he earned was his best since his fifth place in the All-Star race and his second top-15 of the season. He was consistent throughout all 500 laps and avoided the trouble that caught out many other drivers. His run Saturday shows that on tracks where drivers make more of a difference than cars, he can still be a viable fantasy option. He finished 26th at Darlington last season, but fans will wonder what he might do with better equipment.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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