Bristol, TN – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin picked up his fourth win of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) season in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Leading 79 of the 500 laps, Hamlin worked his way back after falling two laps behind after making contact with the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson in Stage 1.
The real story of the night, though, was Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota Camry leading a race-high 93 laps.
Hamlin’s No. 11 Camry passed DiBenedetto with 11 laps to go and the fan favorite was able to hold on to second-place.
Even Hamlin felt the electricity of the underdog story.
“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto, (crew chief) Mike Wheeler…I know what a win would mean to that team.”
While he fell just short of his first career win, DiBenedetto’s second-place showing was a career-best and it came at the end of a tumultuous week for the 28-year-old.
It was announced just days prior that DiBenedetto would not return to LFR and the No. 95 in 2020, a seat that is likely to be occupied by Christopher Bell.
Saturday was DiBenedetto’s third top-five of the season and he is showing his peers – and prospective car owners – that he can compete for wins at NASCAR’s highest level.
Said Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, “That would have been a pretty cool story. He just announced that he’s not going to be in that car next year and I think he does a great job. He really drove for that one. It stinks he couldn’t get it done, but he’s a great driver. I hope he lands somewhere good.”
“A lot of people have respect for him,” Hamlin added. “He’s humble. This is not a story of he’s just going to go away. This is only the beginning for him. He’s writing his resume on TV every weekend.”
Slightly disappointed, of course, DiBenedetto was also upbeat and optimistic post-race.
“I’m sad. Congrats to Denny, raced hard and I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. To be racing door-to-door with him at Bristol in front of a great group of fans – I’m trying not to get emotional but it’s been a tough week and I just want to stick around and want to keep doing this for a long time to come. I am not done yet. Something is going to happen.”
The upset victory would have guaranteed DiBenedetto a spot in the Cup Series’ 16-driver playoff field. Instead, he’ll take the 41 points he earned and enjoy 22nd-place in the standings.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez holds a two-point lead over teammate Clint Bowyer for the final playoff spot. Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson sits in 18th-place, 26 points back of Suarez.
With just two races remaining in the regular season, time is running out for these drivers to make their move and secure their spots.
One of the sport’s crown jewel events, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is next up on the schedule.
Taking place at 6:00PM ET on Sunday, September 1, NBCSN will air the 70th running of the event.
Feel free to follow Teddy Rydquist and the Lapped Traffic Podcast on Twitter @TeddyRydquist @lappedtrafficpc.