There would be no storybook ending for Matt DiBenedetto at the Bass Pro Shop NRA Bristol Night Race on Aug. 17 as he watched Denny Hamlin celebrate his fourth checkered flag of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
It was a gut-wrenching end to an emotional week for the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 team after it was announced earlier in the week that DiBenedetto would not be returning as a driver next season, and the disappointment of losing the lead with a mere 11 laps remaining was obvious after the race.
“I don’t even know what to say. I’m so sad we didn’t win, but proud, proud of the effort,” DiBenedetto said. “I want to try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week and I want to stick around, and I want to win. That’s all I want to do is win in the Cup Series and we were close.”
For Hamlin, the victory moved him into a tie for the series lead and continued a remarkable streak of racing put together by first year crew chief Chris Gabeheart as the No. 11 FedEx Toyota has finished in the top five, with two wins, in the last six races.
“Proud of this whole FedEx team for giving me a great car, pit crew, crew chief, everybody doing an amazing job,” Hamlin said. “It’s on a roll like I’ve never seen before. It hasn’t been this good in a long time.”
Almost infamous for it’s tight confines and heavy traffic, the half-mile oval of Bristol Motor Speedway lived up to its reputation with eight yellow flags and 23 lead changes over the 500-lap marathon. DiBenedetto led a race high 93 laps, while Hamlin, starting from the pole position, held the lead for 79 laps.
The trouble for DiBenedetto started on lap 472 as he tried to pass Ryan Newman to put him a lap down. Newman, who entered the race on the playoff bubble, refused to yield the pass, allowing Hamlin to close the gap and ultimately drop below DiBenedetto for the final lead change of the race.
“I just worked him over, worked him over. I knew I didn’t want to show him the bottom until I knew I could make the pass,” Hamlin said. “I ran the top, ran the top, ran the top, got the position on the bottom and finished it. We had a great car that could move around.”
With only two races remaining in the regular season, the playoffs loomed large at Bristol as Newman, Daniel Suarez, Clint Bowyer and 7-time cup champion Jimmie Johnson all battled for the final spot in the post-season field of 16 drivers.
Newman’s battle with DiBenedetto preserved an 11th place finish and left him in 15th in the standings with 603 points, a meager 12 points ahead of Suarez who combined an 8th place finish with a strong stage two to slide into the final playoff spot only two points ahead of Bowyer, who finished 7th on the day.
Johnson, after qualifying 30th and finishing 19th at Bristol fell 26 points off the bubble into 18th in the standings, is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in his career but remained optimistic as he looked ahead to the final two races of the year.
“I know the results are coming, it’s just a series of bad luck and it all started with a bad qualifying effort. We have to clean things up for sure,” Johnson said. “I’ve got one more shot. I don’t know, it’s so hard to predict. These are two great tracks for me, two places that I love. We’ll see what happens.”
Darlington Raceway, where Johnson has three career wins, is the next stop on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit for the Bojangles Southern 500 on Sept. 1.